House of Commons
Monday 28 September 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I am sure all Members will wish to join me in paying our respects to Police Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was killed in the course of duty on Friday, and in sending our condolences to his family. Yesterday was National Police Memorial Day. I ask all Members to stand and observe a minute’s silence to mark that occasion and to remember Matt Ratana.
The House observed a one-minute silence.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cross-Channel Migrant Trafficking
The whole House expresses their condolences following the murder on Friday of Sergeant Matt Ratana.
The UK Government are working with law enforcement and intelligence networks to address the issue of illegal migration and the cross-channel trafficking of migrants. Our work continues, and we are arresting and prosecuting those responsible for the illegal trafficking of people.
May I, from the Back Benches, associate myself and, I am sure, all colleagues with the condolences expressed in relation to the death of Matt Ratana?
All the children, women and men who seek to cross the channel are the victims of criminal activity. Further to her answer, can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many perpetrators of these vile crimes, in either France or the United Kingdom, have been arrested and sentenced? Can she also tell us what discussions she has had with her German counterparts to seek to prevent the provision of the outboard motors and inflatable dinghies used in these crossings that I understand emanate from Germany?
My right hon. Friend raises important points about the illegal trafficking of people via small boats. We have arrested 179 individuals, resulting in 24 convictions relating to people smuggling this year. There have been a further 296 disruptions of organised criminal gangs and individuals who are responsible for the organisation of immigration crime, 124 of which related to people smuggling. We also have 176 live investigations into illegal maritime activity.
My right hon. Friend also mentions Germany. It is not just Germany. Discussions are taking place with counterparts in not just Germany but France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The issue of boats also relates to criminal upstream activity. When it comes to convictions, we are of course working with the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and our intelligence networks to ensure that more work is taking place to pursue those who are responsible.
May I extend the condolences of the Scottish National party to the family, friends and colleagues of Sergeant Matt Ratana and mark our horror at this terrible crime and our acknowledgement of the debt we all owe to police officers across these islands?
On 4 November last year, when the Home Secretary was still a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Committee found that
“A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.”
Does she still agree with that statement, and, if so, does she recognise that safe legal routes for people with a connection with the United Kingdom must be part of the answer to the problem we face in these channel crossings?
I fundamentally agree that we need safe legal routes, and that is part of the work that the Home Office is currently looking at and working on. The fact of the matter is that too many individuals are coming to the United Kingdom and, it is fair to say, to other EU countries, because over recent years we have seen the mass movement of people. People are being exploited and that exploitation is fundamentally wrong. We owe it to everyone, including those individuals who are being trafficked, those who are vulnerable and those who are being exploited, to ensure that there are safe legal routes, but at the same time we have to go after criminals—the perpetrators of illegal migration and exploitation—and it is right that we do. We want to ensure that our asylum system is not abused by those who, quite frankly, are not genuine asylum seekers.
Online Hate Speech and Extremism
As a Government, we are committed to vigorously countering extremist ideology by making sure that every part of government is taking action. That includes ongoing conversations between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office on the implementation of the online harms framework to tackle hateful content. We will continue to work across government to challenge extremism in all its forms.
At a Home Affairs Committee session last week, the national lead for counter-terrorism, Neil Basu, warned of growing numbers of young people being drawn towards right-wing terrorism. During this pandemic, social media have done much to amplify hateful extremism. What steps will the Minister take to prevent young people from being drawn into extremism?
The hon. Gentleman highlights an important point about the exploitation of the online world to attract the unwary and what that can lead to, which is why we are working with the companies concerned to see that content is removed. I highlight the online harms work, which will lead to a new regime to put new responsibilities on those companies to provide support in respect of the challenge of extremism and content that might not be illegal but profoundly is harmful.
A recent Home Affairs Committee session heard that Facebook had deleted 9.6 million posts about hate speech in the first quarter of this year. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-Committee on which I serve has considered online disinformation during covid. What assessment has the Minister made of the links between hate speech and disinformation? Is there discussion between his Department and the DCMS?
As I indicated in response to the previous question, we are in discussion with the DCMS about these issues. It troubles me that sometimes this disinformation and these conspiracy theories can be used to galvanise more extremist behaviour. We are very alive to that in terms of working with our colleagues at the DCMS and in terms of our broader work in the Prevent space where this issue can move into terrorism. The issue of the extreme right-wing and far-right extremists seeking to exploit the online world and trap some quite young people is something we are very focused on and conscious of.
For two weeks running, we have seen anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists clashing with police throughout the country, with four people having been arrested in Newcastle over the weekend. This behaviour is being fuelled online by far-right opportunists and some high-profile individuals, such as Ian Brown of the Stone Roses. Will the Minister outline what his Department is doing to build trust in Government information and in respect of scepticism and concern about vaccination?
I highlight to the hon. Lady the work that is being led by the DCMS, with which we are working on the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit, which has been stood up during this time of acute disinformation to challenge some of the conspiracy theories and false information. I assure her that there is extensive work across government to analyse and then work with the companies to take false or misleading information down. Clearly, it is an ongoing challenge, but we are determined to take firm action where false narratives are being perpetrated.
The scale and accessibility of hateful extremist content online is deeply worrying and causing serious damage to society, and it needs to be identified speedily and dealt with. Last week, in her evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the commissioner for countering extremism called for a more rigorous classification system for assessing hateful extremist material in the online harms Bill to get to grips with the vast spread of extremism online. Does the Minister support this call, and does he agree with the commission’s report last year that the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, drawn up in 2015, is insufficient, too broad and out of date?
The 2015 strategy was the first of its kind in the world in having a unit dedicated to countering extremism. I pay tribute to the work of the commissioner, and I read very carefully her words to the Select Committee last week. We will work with the commissioner—indeed, the Home Secretary met her last week—and we are working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom to consider the appropriate design for the regulatory framework. We will continue to develop this as we prepare to introduce the legislation, and we will consider the commissioner’s proposals as part of that work.
Domestic Abuse Victims
During lockdown, we continued to legislate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. This vital Bill and our non-legislative programme of work will support and protect victims and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. In response to covid-19, we have worked with charities, the police, local authorities and the domestic abuse commissioner to adapt to the pressures of lockdown and local restrictions, including additional funding for charities and the launch of the national advice campaign, #YouAreNotAlone.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. It is no secret that lockdown was a time of heightened risk for victims of domestic abuse. I pay tribute to local charity Crossroads Derbyshire for the important work it does in providing support for people in my constituency. May I ask the Minister to provide an important point of clarification on the latest covid rules: can those individuals who are at risk of domestic abuse still leave their homes even if there are local covid restrictions in place?
I thank my hon. Friend sincerely for his question. The answer is yes, they absolutely can leave their homes to seek help. Of course, if anyone is in immediate danger, they must dial 999 and the police will help. For longer-term advice and guidance, we have set out a range of services on the gov.uk website, but please can we all send the message to our constituents that, wherever they are in the country, they can seek help if they need it if they are victims of domestic abuse?
I echo the calls of the Minister to get people to reach out, and we have to make sure there is help when they do so. On a call last week with the children’s sector, professional after professional told me that the availability of specialist community support for child victims of domestic abuse is at worst non-existent and at best patchy. Can the Minister tell the House if her Department has a strategy in place that will enable every child in this country who lives in an abusive household to access the support that they need? Can she share that strategy with the House, not just read out funding sums from her folder that she and I both know cover only certain select areas for a short-term period? Perhaps she could enlighten us all on how we can access the support for the children in our constituencies, because for many in this place services for child victims in their area do not exist.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She knows just how carefully the Government consider the role and the victimhood of children in abusive households. She will know that we have recently announced £3 million to help charities specifically that work with children who are victims of domestic abuse. [Interruption.] I know she writes that off as yet another funding announcement, but I think that the funding of these charities is very important. In addition, we have a range of strategies and funding across the Department for Education, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office to help the most vulnerable children, and I am sure she welcomes the work that the domestic abuse commissioner is undertaking to map domestic abuse community-based services across the country so that we can build a sustainable programme of support for victims, whether they are adults or children.
Police Officer Numbers
The Home Office, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the College of Policing and all forces are working flat out to recruit 20,000 new police officers, supported by £700 million from the taxpayer.
This Government were elected on a pledge to recruit 20,000 more frontline police officers—something that is very important to people in Fylde. Will my hon. Friend update the House on how many people have joined the police since the recruitment drive was launched? Will he confirm that we are on target to deliver on that promise?
I well understand my hon. Friend’s impatience for his area to see an increase in police officers. That impatience is shared by me, the Home Secretary and probably everybody in the country. He will be pleased to hear that we have now had more than 100,000 applicants to be police officers and recruited a little over 4,300. We are ahead of schedule.
With the tragic death of rugby player Sergeant Matt Ratana, we are reminded of the very dangerous work that police officers do on our behalf. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to Warwickshire’s Conservative police and crime commissioner, Philip Seccombe, who has used his own powers on top of additional Government funding to bring in an extra 216 officers, with new officers in vehicle crime teams and enhanced safer neighbourhood teams, more detectives and more 999 response officers?
My hon. Friend is quite right: it has been a sombre weekend for us all, with the tragic events of Friday reinforced by Police Memorial Day just yesterday. I am pleased to congratulate Philip Seccombe, with whom I have had many meetings in the last year or so, on his efforts to increase the number of police officers out there, which will make everybody in Warwickshire and, indeed, across the country, safer.
The Government have announced a police funding settlement that sets out the biggest increase in funding for the policing system in a decade. In total, we are increasing the funding available to the policing system by more than £1 billion this year.
Rural and wildlife crime sadly continues to affect our local communities. Theft of farm machinery, burglary, animal theft and cruelty, antisocial behaviour and vandalism are just some of the issues facing our rural areas. Cumbria has the excellent Cumbria Farm Watch scheme, a partnership between people and Cumbria police. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give my constituents in Penrith and The Border that the Government are supporting the police and communities in the fight against rural and wildlife crime?
As a rural Member, I know exactly the type of concern to which my hon. Friend refers; it is shared by people in my constituency. Obviously, the provision of significant extra numbers of police officers to Cumbria police will help the chief constable in deliberations about where to put those resources. Although that is an operational matter, one would hope that some of it will be devoted to rural crime. I certainly hope that will happen in Hampshire. On wildlife crime, I am pleased to report that we are putting £136,000 into the National Wildlife Crime Unit so that it can continue its valuable work.
The extra policing that my hon. Friend mentioned is very good news. In Wiltshire, we are thrilled because we are getting more than 100 new police officers for Wiltshire police and even more police and community support officers to help with all the crime we import from Hampshire. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, so often, funding formulas designed in London have urban places in mind and sometimes that sadly applies to police funding formulas as well? Will he update the House on any work that is being done to review the police funding formula to ensure that rural areas are properly treated?
I am grateful to my constituency neighbour for his question, though not for the aspersions he casts on my fellow county residents. I thought crime flowed in the other direction. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right that the formula, while the best available funding formula we have, is quite old now and needs to be reviewed. It contains several indicators that skew funding towards urban areas and in the next couple of years we have to reflect on the fact that crime has changed and that rural areas are experiencing more crime than they have perhaps been used to. Doubtless the Home Secretary and I will work on some form of funding formula review before the next election.
Cross-Channel Illegal Migration
The Government are committed to ending completely these dangerous crossings facilitated by ruthless criminals. These crossings are also unnecessary because France is a safe country. Our clandestine channel threat commander, newly appointed, is working closely with his French colleagues to stop these embarkations in the first place, and we are also working tirelessly to return people who have made this journey.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Can he say when legislation will be brought forward to update immigration and asylum law, and whether it will contain provisions such as stopping those who enter the United Kingdom illegally subsequently applying to stay in this country?
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the legal system. It is quite frankly not fit for purpose in this area when it comes to asylum and immigration enforcement matters. We are often frustrated by repeatedly vexatious legal claims, often made at the last minute with the express intention of frustrating the proper application of the law. I can confirm that we are working at pace on legislative options in the way that he describes, and that everything is on the table.
My constituents in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton are rightly angry at the images that they are seeing of people arriving on our shores illegally, often in small boats. To solve this crisis in the long term will require co-operation, and, whereas we in this country seem to be gold-plating a lot of the regulations that would enable us to solve this problem, many of our European partners are not. What representations is my hon. Friend making to our European partners to ensure that they actually follow through with the obligations that they have made?
We are working at the moment with other European countries to return people to those European countries where they have previously claimed asylum. Indeed, return flights went last week and are going this week as well. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that leaving the Dublin regulations creates new opportunities. We have already tabled a draft readmissions agreement for consideration by the European Commission, but he can rest assured that once we are out of the transition period on 1 January, this Government will be redoubling their efforts to make sure that people who come here from safe countries, for example, are rapidly returned.
I know the Minister is working tirelessly to bring the criminals facilitating the illegal channel crossings to justice and to tackle this exploitative crime. Does he agree that, while we must uphold our obligations to genuine asylum seekers, there can be no justifiable reason for migrants to be crossing the channel, putting themselves and our Border Force at risk when France remains a safe option?
My hon. Friend puts it very well. We are pursuing the ruthless criminals who facilitate this wicked process. Twenty-four of them have been convicted so far this year. He is right to say that, where people are in genuine fear of persecution, we should protect them. Indeed, we do so and our resettlement scheme has been the leading scheme in Europe over the past five years. He is also right to say that, when people are in France, they are already in a safe country and if they want protection they can obtain it by applying to the French Government.
The channel-crossing route is clearly being promoted by people smugglers as an easy route in. These individuals do not give a damn about the welfare of those whom they exploit or the lives that they put in danger. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that this route becomes entirely untenable and illustrates loud and clear to organised crime gangs that Britain’s border is closed to such illegal crossings?
My hon. Friend is quite right to say that our objective, and the Home Secretary’s objective, is to make this route completely unviable, so that nobody attempts it in the first place. It is dangerous, it is illegally facilitated and it is unnecessary. We are working with the French to prevent the embarkations happening in the first place. We are looking at tactics that we can deploy at sea to prevent the crossings from happening, and we are looking at what more we can do to return people once they make the crossing. Those measures, taken together, will make this route unviable and end these crossings.
People across Stoke-on-Trent are extremely concerned about the number of people we are seeing crossing the English channel illegally. Does my hon. Friend agree that asylum should be claimed in the first safe country and that we should deport those here illegally?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. France is a safe country and, as I said, people who wish to claim protection from persecution when they are in northern France should do so by claiming asylum in France. There is no need at all to attempt this dangerous and illegally facilitated crossing. When people do make the crossing, we are using all the legal means available to us to ensure that they are returned—for example, to countries where they previously claimed asylum under the Dublin regulation—and flights doing that took place last week and will take place this week.
The United Kingdom, over the past five years, has, I am proud to say, run Europe’s leading resettlement scheme; we have resettled more people directly from conflict zones than any other European country. It is currently paused owing to coronavirus, but as soon as we are safely and properly able to resume activity, we will do so.
The UK’s refugee resettlement schemes have been a lifeline to many thousands of people who have come to the UK after escaping some of the world’s most brutal conflict and regimes. However, the Government have still not allocated any funding for these schemes beyond September 2021. What assurances can the Minister give me that the UK will continue to provide safe sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution after that date?
The hon. Member will know that we are going through a spending review process, where questions of funding will be considered. Although the resettlement programme is currently paused owing to coronavirus, it is our intention to appropriately recommence it when circumstances allow. I thank her for the tribute that she paid to the scheme that has operated for the past five years. As she said, it is the leading scheme anywhere in Europe.
Rural Crime Reduction
We are determined to drive down crime in rural and urban areas, which is why we are recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers and, by the way, investing £85 million in the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that the criminal justice system can deal with the results.
Will the Minister join me in thanking the Sussex rural crime team, which I long campaigned for and which was set up by police commissioner Katy Bourne in June this year? It is now doing excellent work, protecting our rural communities, farmers and isolated towns and villages in Arundel and South Downs.
I am aware that my hon. Friend has made a huge impact in his constituency since he was elected recently and that this is a result of something that he has campaigned on for some time. I applaud Katy Bourne—who is one of our leading police and crime commissioners and is always innovating—on the establishment of this unit, and I hope that it will make a big difference.
I am reminded with rural crime of that interesting philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a crime happens and no one reports it, do the police see it? I urge my hon. Friend to encourage his constituents, particularly in rural areas—we have had a number of questions on rural crime today—to report every single crime, because modern policing is driven by data, and if a crime is not reported, as far as the police are concerned, it probably never happened.
As a Croydon MP and the shadow Policing Minister, I pay tribute to Sergeant Matt Ratana for his years of service in my community. Our community spoke as one on Friday both in our grief, but also in our gratitude for the many years of service from a wonderful officer, who was the very best of us, and we will not forget him.
Community policing is the bedrock of our communities, but it has suffered deep cuts. Those cuts have an acute impact in our rural areas, where vulnerability and isolation can be particularly severe. Only one in 14 crimes leads to court proceedings. Most victims get no justice at all. The Government have overseen a cut in the number of police community support officers by nearly 50%, and there are no plans to replace them. What does the Minister say to the victims of crime who deserve justice but under this Government are just not getting it?
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s words about the awful events of Friday. I know that it hit home hard in Croydon for her; I think she was due to visit that very custody suite that day or the following day. It was a terrible time, and hopefully justice will follow that awful crime.
On the hon. Lady’s wider point, she and I have had this discussion a number of times over the Dispatch Box. Although repetition is not infrequent in this Chamber, I urge her to reflect on the fact that for the first half of the coalition and then Conservative Government, we were struggling with a difficult financial situation nationally, and crime was falling. That required a different kind of response to the one we see today. She is right to point to the fact that we have seen a rise in crime over the past couple of years, albeit different kinds of crime from those we have seen previously. That is why we are massively increasing police capacity and bringing enormous focus, through the National Policing Board, the Crime Performance Board, which I lead, and the Strategic Change and Investment Board at the Home Office, to the national systemic problems that she raises in the hope that, over the next three years, we can drive them down significantly.
Asylum Seekers: Resettlement and Relocation
As another Croydon MP, I would like to add my words to those of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), and pay tribute to Sergeant Ratana and his long track record of service to our local community. Everybody in the borough, from north to south, feels it deeply. Our sympathy and condolences go to his family at what must be an agonising and heartbreaking time.
On the question of resettlement, we are continuing to welcome family reunion cases, as we are obliged to do under the Dublin regulations, including from Greece—in fact, particularly from Greece. Already this summer, three flights have brought in refugees to reunite them with family members in the United Kingdom, so we are continuing to discharge our obligations.
Conditions on the Aegean islands were an overcrowded living hell for asylum seekers, even before the fire at Moria left 13,000 homeless. Given what the Home Secretary said to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) about the importance of safe legal routes, surely the Government must now join Germany and France in offering to relocate some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers from the Aegean islands, even beyond those for whom they have responsibility under family reunion rules.
We are investigating ways that the United Kingdom Government can help our colleagues in Greece. That includes the possibility of using overseas aid money to assist them, as well as looking at people who are entitled to be relocated to the UK under the Dublin regulations, and at what we can do to assist and expedite that process.
I have some numbers to put this issue in context. Some 13,000 refugees are without any shelter as a result of the recent fires in Greece, 3,800 of whom are children. There are 21 confirmed cases of covid in the camp, which has a quarantine capacity of just 30. Ten countries, including France, Germany, Croatia and Portugal, have already agreed to take some of the hundreds of unaccompanied young minors in the camp. At present, we have taken just 16, but this place promised to take 3,000 under the Dubs scheme. Will the Minister give me and others who are concerned about this issue just one meeting to discuss what more we can do on our obligations to those vulnerable young children?
We have fulfilled our Dubs obligation in full: 380 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have been brought to the UK from European countries, in addition to 3,500 who came here last year. That is higher than any other country in Europe. In addition to that, we are honouring our Dublin obligations to Greece. It is not 16; well over 100 people have been taken from Greece directly back here. Where we have further obligations, we will do everything we can to make sure we meet them. In addition to that, as I said in response to an earlier question, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is looking at ways that we can help to provide the kind of shelter that the hon. Lady referred to. There is a lot that the Government have done and will continue to do. If she would like to meet me to discuss that, I would be delighted to do so.
I understand that on 15 September partner agencies were notified that the Home Office was lifting a ban on asylum evictions with immediate effect. I appreciate that the pause in the system cannot continue indefinitely. However, to evict people into destitution and homelessness as we enter a second wave of infections completely undermines public health efforts to keep everyone safe from the virus, especially in areas like mine that have local restrictions in place. Can the Minister share with us the plan to ensure that these risks do not become a reality?
As the shadow Minister says, on 27 March we paused cessations whereby people leave asylum accommodation when their decision is made positively or negatively. On 11 August, we resumed those for positive cases where they have been granted asylum, in a very phased, very careful, week-by-week, step-by-step way, moving them, where necessary, into local authority and other kinds of accommodation. We are now just beginning the process for the negative cases where asylum has not been granted, because clearly we cannot accommodate people at public expense indefinitely when their asylum claim has been rejected. We are doing this in a very careful, phased, week-by-week way to make sure that the sorts of risks that she describes do not come to pass. Where there are safe routes home to the country of origin for people whose claims have been rejected, we are working to make sure that those safe routes home are taken.
Public Order: Covid-19
Throughout the pandemic, our police officers have been on the streets every single day working tirelessly to stop the spread of coronavirus. I am in contact, virtually every day now, with the National Police Chiefs Council and policing leaders to ensure that we have the right plans and the right approach to make sure that the police play their role in stopping the spread of the virus and maintaining public order.
During the lockdown in Runnymede and Weybridge, we saw a huge community response and support to get through some of its real challenges. Unfortunately, though, a small minority have been making life miserable for people through antisocial behaviour. I have already heard that, with the new measures coming in, this is starting up again. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the importance of tackling antisocial behaviour and assure me that the police have the support and resources necessary to do so?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the full impacts of antisocial behaviour previously that are manifesting again. That is why police leaders are working with local authority partners to address many of these issues. He is right to point out that we must back the police to have the tools, the powers and the support they need. We will back them all the way to make sure that we deal with issues such as antisocial behaviour.
Emergency Services: Assaults
I have said before in this Chamber and will say it again: in my view, anybody who lays a malicious finger on a police officer, or indeed any emergency worker, should face swift and severe retribution through the criminal justice system. We recently announced our intention to double the maximum sentence for assaults on emergency workers.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s response. Last week, Sussex MPs met the south-east coast ambulance service team, and we were disturbed to hear of an increase in assaults where drink and drugs seems to be a factor. Can the Minister, through his Department and across Government, work to ensure that when it comes to policing, prosecution and sentencing of these individuals, drink or drug abuse is an aggravating factor, not a mitigating factor, and that we stand by our ambulance personnel and ensure that those who abuse them go behind bars?
There is absolutely no excuse for assaulting any kind of emergency worker, whether one is on drink or drugs or completely sober. I have to confess that I do not comprehend what goes on in the twisted mind of someone who would commit an assault, particularly on somebody in an ambulance who is coming to the medical aid of a fellow citizen. My hon. Friend raises a good point about aggravating factors. When we shortly consider, hopefully, the doubling of the sentence in legislation, I will certainly take that into account. The Sentencing Council is about to start a review of the sentencing of assault, and I urge him and others to make a submission to that forum as to aggravating factors.
Asylum Accommodation: Covid-19
As I have mentioned, during the coronavirus pandemic we have been allowing people to remain in their asylum accommodation even after their asylum decision has been made, positively or negatively. We started cessations in August for positive cases, and more recently in England for negative ones. As a result, the number of people we have been supporting has gone up hugely, from about 48,000 to about 60,000 across the UK. That has put enormous strain on the system, but we have been working night and day to accommodate that strain.
As covid’s second wave hits, the Minister must recognise that evicting asylum seekers into destitution will be a disaster for both asylum seekers and the communities into which they are evicted. Will she reverse these utterly reckless plans and confirm whether public health directors and bodies were consulted about this specific decision, and what they advised?
I am a he, not a she. We will not reverse the decision, because we need to make sure that when their asylum decisions have been made, people are moved on into the community. We cannot accommodate people indefinitely. As I said in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, the number of people we are accommodating has gone up from 48,000 to 60,000 as a result of stopping move-ons over the summer period. The system is under huge strain, and it is not reasonable to ask the taxpayer to accommodate people on an indefinite basis. We are doing this in a very careful and measured way. We are not doing it all in one go; we are doing it week by week, very slowly and carefully, and at all times in consultation with public health bodies.
I wonder whether the Minister could make me two promises today: first, to publish in Parliament the report of his evaluation of asylum accommodation and support in Glasgow, including the use of hotels and the tragic deaths that have occurred; and, secondly, to provide a copy of that report to the Lord Advocate, who is considering whether to initiate a fatal accident inquiry into the tragic deaths of asylum seekers in Glasgow during the lockdown?
As the hon. and learned Lady says, formal investigations are going on, and of course the Home Office will support them in any way that we are asked. In relation to the internal review that is taking place, I have not received that report yet, but when I do, I will look at it carefully and consider how best to proceed thereafter. On the question of hotel use, I think we all agree that it is not ideal. We are working as rapidly as we can to reduce and eventually end the use of hotels, not just in the city of Glasgow but across the whole United Kingdom.
Last Friday, we saw the senseless murder of police sergeant Matt Ratana while he was on duty in Croydon. His tragic death in the line of duty is a reminder to us all of the risk that our brave officers take each and every day to keep us all safe. I know the House will join me in paying tribute to his courage and service, and also in sending our sincere and heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
A murder investigation is now under way, and I remain in regular contact with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. The entire policing family are grieving, and they have my full support. I will continue to do everything in my power to protect them, including spearheading work to double sentences for attacks on emergency workers, and legislating to introduce a police covenant to enshrine in law support for our officers and their families.
The PCS union has raised fears that Serco could be handed contracts to carry out the very sensitive interviews of people who are seeking refuge here in our country. Serco’s disastrous handling of much of our test and trace system shows once again why such giant outsourcing companies should not be running key public services. Does the Home Secretary accept that we must protect vulnerable people who are seeking asylum, and that that means not handing sensitive asylum interviews over to Serco, or other private contractors, to make money from?
As the hon. Gentleman has already heard throughout oral questions, the fact of the matter is that we are totally committed, and rightly so, to protecting the way in which those who seek asylum are treated in our system. He has already heard about strains and pressures, and it is right that we undertake all interviews in the right and proper phased way. That is exactly what we are doing, in a responsible manner.
My hon. Friend is right about the greater need for safe and legal routes, but it is right that as a Government we pursue those individuals who are facilitating criminality. Hon. Members have already heard the figures for arrests and numbers of convictions, and we will continue with that. We are working right now to look at new, safe and legal routes for the protection of those who need our help.
I know that I speak for the whole House in saying how devastated we all were to hear of the death of Sergeant Matt Ratana on Friday. The tributes we have heard have been heartfelt and deeply moving, and our deepest condolences are with his friends, family and fellow officers, and indeed the wider community in Croydon. His death gave National Police Memorial Day yesterday particular poignancy.
The level of violence against police officers is worrying and it is rising. As John Apter, national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said at the weekend,
“we are seeing more firearms out on the streets and we are doing a lot to try to combat it… More and more are being seized.”
What additional steps are being taken to deal with that increase in the possession of firearms and keep our officers safe?
I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments following the appalling death of Sergeant Matt Ratana. I spoke yesterday to the chair of the Police Federation, John Apter, on a number of issues. First and foremost, I restated this Government’s commitment and determination to address assaults on emergency workers. Like many others, he was right to point out—we know this when it comes to policing—the risks that our officers face every day, which also relates to the number of firearms in circulation.
The Government are working to address the issue of firearms entering our country, and we are working with our national intelligence agencies and services, as well as the National Crime Agency. A great deal of work is taking place on firearms that have been imported to our country—not just weapons, but component parts—as well as on ways that criminals who are facilitating firearms, and the harm that they cause, can be intercepted and tackled. We are developing greater legislation to look at more police powers, and at ways that they themselves could do more work to tackle serious violence and high levels of harm, including with firearms.
I, too, praise the work of the National Crime Agency, and we will of course carefully consider any legislation that comes forward. However, as I am sure the Home Secretary appreciates, help is needed now. The work of our police has become harder and harder as numbers have fallen, and violent crime has risen in every part of our country. I have written to the Home Secretary pointing out that the violent crime taskforce has not met for more than a year. It has not been replaced by a similar, specialist body, which leaves a vital strategic element of addressing violence missing. Will the Home Secretary commit to working on a cross-party basis to convene a replacement strategic taskforce that can address violent crime and the issues that drive it?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, issues of serious violent crime are addressed at the National Policing Board. We are looking at those issues and working on them day in, day out. The Government are not just committed to that; we are spending and investing the money. We have the serious violence reduction taskforce, and right now, funding is going directly to policing, and money has been materialised and operationalised on the streets of our country. We are tackling serious and violent crime, and leadership is also coming from the National Policing Board.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s question and also the report that she is referring to. We have seen the report and I will absolutely commit to a meeting with her and her colleagues. It is quite clear that we as a Government and we as individuals are committed to tackling the harm and exploitation that is associated with prostitution. Of course our priority is to protect those who are exploited and to protect vulnerable people, and there are certainly some very practical ways in which we can do that.
I join the tributes to Sergeant Matt Ratana. No one should ever underestimate the bravery of police officers and the risks they take to keep us all safe.
Last week, the Select Committee heard evidence from the counter-extremism commissioner and the national counter-terror chief on the way in which extremists have exploited the covid crisis, and they called for new, co-ordinated action against extremism to be set up through a taskforce led by the Home Secretary. That is something that was first recommended over a year ago. Does the Home Secretary agree that we need this co-ordinated action as part of the vital work to protect our national security, and if so, why has the taskforce not yet been set up? Why has it not yet met?
I met Sara Khan last week and had a very constructive discussion with her about ways of working—not just the work of the taskforce but the entire field of counter-extremism, the work that is associated, and the lessons to be learned from the past. Obviously we are using the expertise of the Committee itself to look at learnings and how we can address the threat spectrum across the board. We have many experienced practitioners in this field and I am working with Sara Khan and others to develop learnings and look at the approach that we are going to take.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to Thames Valley police. It is an exceptional and outstanding police force, and I know his community is served well by it. He has heard my remarks on the police covenant, and it is absolutely right that we do much more to protect our frontline officers and their family members and provide the welfare support that they all need as well. I absolutely concur with all Members of the House in recognising that Friday’s murder highlights why we need to put that into law.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to his police force in particular and his police chief for the outstanding work they do. I know that rural crime was mentioned earlier, but when it comes to tackling nuisance driving and, frankly, the wrong kind of driving—speeding and all those types of issues, including on mopeds and scooters—we need to ensure that people can go about their daily lives. We are already providing more funding for more police activity through police uplift, and the police have powers under the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Police Reform Act 2002 to seize vehicles that are being driven illegally.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She has highlighted the gross severity of what is taking place, not just with economic crime, but with how our financial systems are associated with the facilitation of dirty money. Of course, we as a country do not want to be associated with that, and much more needs to happen. The FinCEN example was a very strong indication as to where there have been gaps in the system, and extensive work is taking place right now. I would be more than happy for her to discuss with officials more of the work being undertaken in this area, because there are far too many sources of illegal economic finance and perpetrators of economic crime. There is no doubt that, through our international financial system, we can all do a lot more.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right to point out a number of key facts. Assaults on police officers are thoroughly unacceptable, and I am afraid that this weekend alone we saw a range of assaults on officers serving in the Metropolitan police when they were policing protests. Those were ugly and unacceptable scenes, and there is simply no excuse for assaults. The other point to make is that we are in a national emergency—we are still in a health pandemic—and the police are working valiantly to attempt to stop the spread of the virus. The public are acting brilliantly by being conscientious, undertaking the measures and safeguarding in the right kind of way. It is right that we all play our own role, but to turn our fire on the police is completely wrong. It is inappropriate at every level, and the public, not just when it comes to protest but in their conduct in respect of coronavirus, must be conscientious and respect the police in every way.
I am sorry, but that was the final question, given the length of time we have taken. May I just advise Members that questions and answers should be short and punchy, as we are defeating the idea of topicals, which is why we have not got very far today? I hope that we can learn from today.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder if I might seek your advice. Exactly a week ago in this Chamber, I asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about the efficacy of vitamin D as an extra bit of armour against coronavirus. He said that he had conducted a trial and there was no effect. It turns out that there was no trial. Apparently it was a National Institute for Health and Care Excellence review of secondary evidence on 1 July. The word “trial” implies fresh evidence, not reheated leftovers. The Secretary of State is here, so I wonder if he can correct the record.
I put this matter in as a written question to the Department of Health and Social Care and the answer came back that it had not been able to answer in time. It was the press office that told me about the secondary review of evidence. Is it not unsatisfactory when we do things through the correct channels and it is the spin doctors who end up answering? Can we do better by not embellishing the facts and by getting things in the proper way?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The evidence is as described. I would be very happy to take the hon. Lady and any other Member through the existing evidence and to listen to any further evidence she has. What matters is getting the best and the right clinical advice. I am enthusiastic to hear about all possible scientific advances that might be helpful.
It is not a point of order for the Chair, but I think the hon. Lady can be satisfied that a meeting has been offered. That is important. The only other thing she put on the record—and I know the Secretary of State is well aware of this—is that we do need speedy replies to MPs.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19.
Today’s debate comes at a critical moment, as coronavirus continues its deadly march across the globe. Too many lives have been cut short and there has been too much hardship and suffering. Here at home we have seen a sharp rise in the number of cases, and this must concern us all. We know from bitter experience in so many countries that the nature of exponential growth is that, once the virus is spreading, it accelerates, with all the consequences that brings.
It is the first duty of Government—of any Government —to keep people safe. Our duty—that of each of us here in this House—is to seek to represent our constituents to the best of our ability in their interests and in the interests of the nation. In tackling this unprecedented pandemic, we must each of us seek to balance the cherished freedoms on which people thrive with that duty to keep people safe, balancing in each judgment the economic, social, educational and, of course, health needs on which our nation’s future depends.
If the first duty of Government is to keep people safe, will the Secretary of State remember that the first duty of Parliament is to hold Government to account? I know that he wants to take public opinion with him, but will he therefore reassure us that he is also determined to take Parliament with him? In that respect, may I urge him to meet with my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and come to a compromise to ensure that, if there are further national lockdowns, Parliament will be fully involved in the process?
I thought this might come up. I was going to develop the argument further before coming to the nub of that particular point, but, since my right hon. Friend gives me the opportunity, I strongly agree with the need for us in this House to have the appropriate level of scrutiny. As the Prime Minister set out last week, we have already put in place further measures. The aim is to provide the House with the opportunity to scrutinise in advance through regular statements and debates, questioning the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly—that has already started—gaining access to local data and having the daily calls with Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General.
We are looking at further ways to ensure that the House can be properly involved in the process—in advance, where possible. I hope to provide the House with further details soon. I will take up the invitation to a further meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), whom I have already met to discuss this matter, to see what further progress can be made. I hope that that, for the time being, satisfies my right hon. Friend.
If the right hon. Member considers the efficacy of parliamentary scrutiny, has he looked at what the New Zealand Parliament has done? It has set up a special Select Committee, led by the Leader of the Opposition and with an Opposition majority on it, to subject the Government’s performance to more direct and transparent scrutiny. It appears to have worked very well indeed. Perhaps he would consider that this Parliament could behave in that way.
The structure of Select Committees is a matter for the House, of course, and far be it from me to impinge on the business of the House and the proper responsibilities of the Leader of the House. I welcome the scrutiny that this House gives. I have answered seven urgent questions, given 12 statements and taken 800 interventions since the start of the pandemic. I am committed to continuing the engagement.
To develop the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I accept the points about scrutiny that the Secretary of State makes, but it is about not just scrutiny but the laws we are making. The laws that came in at midnight, for example, were 12 pages of laws, with lots of detail, criminal offences and duties not mentioned when they were set out in a statement last week. That includes duties on employers, directors and officers, with serious criminal penalties. We need to scrutinise the detail of the legislation before it comes into force and give our assent, and not, I am afraid, just allow the Secretary of State to put it into force by decree.
Of course, sometimes in this pandemic we have to move fast. Sometimes we have had to move fast, and we may need to do so again. The challenge we have in this House is how to ensure proper scrutiny while also being able, when necessary, to move fast in response to the virus. That is the challenge that collectively we all face.
I reassure my right hon. Friend that I am going to praise him later, but the Constitution Unit at University College London tweeted earlier about the regulations mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that
“this policy was briefed to the media 8 days ago. Was it really not possible to schedule proper, detailed parliamentary debate during that time, given the far-reaching consequences?”
“Given the current mood, it seems very likely MPs will ask this.”
Well, I am asking. Surely it was possible, in eight days, to have the debate that my right hon. Friend has called for.
I am grateful for the tone in which my hon. Friend has engaged in this issue. He is a great supporter of parliamentary rights, and I am a fellow traveller in heart. The challenge is how to do that and also be able to move at pace. I would be very happy to talk with him, along with others, about how to make this happen. I would say, however, in respect of the laws that came into place overnight, that I set them out in a statement—in fact, the Prime Minister set out many of them in a statement last week—so we have been clear about the policy intent. The question is how we can make sure that we deal with this appropriately in the future.
I praise my right hon. Friend for what he has done through this pandemic. He has an impossibly difficult job. He has had to take decisions quickly, and he is right to take decisions quickly. But when it comes to new national measures, many of us represent areas where the incidence of the virus remains very low. In the southern part of my constituency—in that district—there were no cases last week. Before we embark on measures that affect everyone, as opposed to firefighting in individual areas, it is really important that this House has the chance to scrutinise, hold to account and challenge. We know my right hon. Friend wants to do the right thing, and we want to help him do the right thing.
Help like that is always very welcome. What I can say is that we want to ensure that the House can be properly involved in this process while also allowing the whole nation to move fast where that is necessary. What I would say to my right hon. Friend and others on this point is that I welcome the rightful recognition that sometimes we do have to decide at pace. This is an unprecedented situation and the truth is that the secondary legislation procedures were not designed for a situation like this. The question is how we can have the appropriate level of scrutiny while also making sure that we can move fast where that is necessary.
On another point—with the leave of the Chair, we may debate these matters around process in a couple of days’ time—may I focus the Secretary of State on the positives? Although there are many challenges, which I will come to if I catch the Speaker’s eye later, we have many things to celebrate in this country about how we have approached the response to this pandemic—not least the brilliant scientific community in this country, which has produced the only known effective treatment for covid-19 and is doing great work on getting us closer to a vaccine. We like to beat ourselves up—or, rather, the media like to beat us up—but is not the truth that we have many things that the rest of the world follows us in?
That is right, and in fact my hon. Friend leads me to where I was going to come next. He is right: whether it is producing the only known treatment, dexamethasone, or having a leading vaccine candidate around the world, or the work that our staff in the NHS did to protect the NHS in the peak of the crisis, or building the Nightingale hospitals in nine days—they told us we would never get that done, but we did—or sorting out the huge problems we had in the provision of personal protective equipment. With the PPE strategy that we set out and published today, we have made it clear that, on all but one line of PPE, by the end of this year we are on track for 70% of our PPE to be produced here in this country. When I got this job, it was 1%. These changes are all huge areas of progress that we have made in tackling this virus, and I am very proud of the whole team who have come together to make them happen.
It is nice to be informed, nice to be consulted and nice to be able to scrutinise, but in the end it is about who decides. Can the Secretary of State explain why he is so against Parliament’s making the decision, even if he argues for urgency and immediacy —within two days, for example—to either confirm or revoke those regulations? Why is he against Parliament’s being the one that finally decides on this? It is quite clear that this is not even being decided in Cabinet, but just by one or two Cabinet members. Let Parliament decide.
May I have a progress report on something we have talked about before: infection control? This time round, will there be isolation hospitals so that we can control the infection in the hospital sector better, and will there be good controls to prevent the seepage of people with infection back to care homes?
The answer to both those questions is yes. We have learnt a huge amount about those and put in place improved procedures, but I am going to come on to the question of the impact of that on our strategy.
The virus has shown beyond all possible doubt that the health of one of us begets the health of us all. Without a doubt in my mind, the central question about the control of the virus, and one that I ask myself every day, is, “How do we best keep people safe from this virus while protecting liberty and livelihoods and the things that make life worth living?” I believe that in reality there is not a simple trade-off between those things, because the exponential growth of the virus means that there are in reality only two paths: either to control the virus or to let it rip.
There is no middle option, because once the virus is growing, it accelerates. To the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), I am convinced that no matter how effectively we protect the vulnerable, and protect them we must, letting the virus rip would leave a death toll too big to bear. In reality, the only question is how to control the virus and when to put measures in place.
That comes directly to the question that we have been debating about both how to control the virus, and how we must act fast. The best thing we can do for schools, for our economy and for both lives and livelihoods is to act fast, together, to control the virus and to keep the rate of infections down. From that goal flows our strategy, which is to suppress the virus while protecting our economy and education until a vaccine arrives.
Is this not why we need evidence-based interventions? The Secretary of State will have seen clips of what happened in my constituency on Saturday night at 10 o’clock, as the streets filled out with young people enjoying themselves and partying with no social distancing, clearly creating the worst of environments. Will he now review the policy of the 10 o’clock curfew to ensure that our streets and neighbourhoods are safe?
We always look at the effects of these policies. We have to take everything in the round, including the level of social distancing that might have been going on, were that to continue all through the night. One reason we brought in the policy is that we have seen it work in other countries, as the hon. Lady knows. None of these interventions on social distancing are ones that we take lightly or want to put in place. The central question is how we keep control of the virus in the best possible way, while reducing the impact on the economy and on education as much as possible.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his indulgence in taking a second intervention. I agree with him: unlike some people, I think we need to take tough measures to deal with the virus, and that we sometimes need to act quickly. The really important question is: will the measures be effective, and do we have the evidence to support that? Therefore, I gently say to the Secretary of State that that is why I think that Ministers coming to Parliament, marshalling the arguments and laying out the evidence, means that we get better decisions that are likely to be more effective in dealing with the virus and protecting our economy. I think that is the general view of many colleagues, on both sides of the House, and I hope he will reflect on that when he meets my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady).
It is a view that I very largely share. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the number of times that I have stood at this Dispatch Box and taken into account points made by Members, from either side of the House, is beyond what I can count. Listening to points that have been made has been part of the rhythm of the response. I therefore caution against the idea that there has not been parliamentary scrutiny, and I know that because I have been at this Dispatch Box usually several times a week when Parliament has been sitting. But I understand the concerns—of course I do—and I hope we can find an appropriate way forward.
The Secretary of State has said that there are essentially two strategies, but there is, of course, a third strategy, based on elimination, which is what New Zealand has pursued. It had succeeded, although there has been a slight resurgence over recent weeks. Is elimination a viable strategy for the UK?
I would love it if elimination were a realistic strategy, but everywhere in the world that has tried an elimination strategy has, sadly, seen a resurgence. New Zealand attempted an elimination strategy and saw a resurgence. Scotland attempted an elimination strategy and saw a resurgence. The virulence of this disease and its prevalence globally—we are almost at the point of 1 million deaths around the world—mean that our two realistic options are suppression until a vaccine comes and letting it rip, and I know which of those two I support. The Government’s position is based entirely on the goal of suppressing the virus while working as fast as we can towards a vaccine.
The truth is that many things have gone well. I thank everybody who has been doing the right thing, following the rules, clicking on the QR codes, washing their hands, wearing a face mask and keeping their space. I thank the people who have been involved in the successes, including the Nightingale hospitals, which I have mentioned, and the NHS and care teams. I thank those who built, almost from scratch, the biggest testing capability of all our peers. Today we are on track to process our 20 millionth test, which is more than the number of tests conducted in France and Spain together. I thank everyone who has played their part, just this weekend, in the fastest download of an app in British history, with 22.4 million downloads as of noon today.
We have done those things together. Never has it been more true to say that no man is an island. None of it would have been possible without a huge team effort. The challenges, as we have discussed, have been legion—I have no doubt that this is the biggest crisis in my lifetime—and we know that we can rise to them only if we do so together.
On testing, is the Secretary of State as appalled as I am that scammers are calling vulnerable people and suggesting that the NHS wishes to charge £50 per test? When the constituent queries them, the scammers insist that they are calling from the track and trace service and that they should give them their bank details. Will the Secretary of State condemn that and raise the issue with the Home Secretary so that these scammers are prosecuted with the full force of the law?
Yes, absolutely. I am aware of these sorts of scams, and we have a programme of action to take against them. It is an outrage that people should try to take advantage of a global pandemic in this illegal way.
I want to update the House on the changes that we have brought into force on requiring and mandating self -isolation. From today, we have introduced a £500 support payment for those self-isolating on low incomes. On top of that, I can tell the House that we are providing £15 million so that local authorities can make discretionary payments to people who do not meet the criteria of the scheme but may also face financial hardship if they have to self-isolate and cannot work. We know that self-isolation works, and we know that the vast majority of people want to do the right thing, so we will enhance support for those who do and come down hard on those who flout the rules.
Our second line of defence is testing and contact tracing. The 20 millionth test today means that we will have processed more tests than Italy and Spain combined. We are expanding our testing capacity all the time, on track to 500,000 a day by the end of the month. Of course, testing only provides the information. What matters is that people act on it, so we have built a veritable army of contact tracers at enormous scale, and they are complemented by the app. It is a cross-party app. I am grateful for the huge support that it has received, and I urge everybody, including every single Member of this House, to join the 12.4 million.
We have so much more information about the virus than we had in the first peak, which means that we can take a more targeted and localised approach. Over the past few months, local restrictions have allowed us to home in on areas where cases are high and rising and put targeted measures in place.
The Secretary of State talks about testing being so important in providing data. Does he therefore regret that in recent weeks, we have seen 40% of testing capacity taken out of London? We are now seeing hospitalisations rising, with talk about further restrictions in London, but we cannot base it on reliable testing data because there has not been enough testing done—people in my constituency and across London are still struggling to access tests. Does he agree that that was the wrong move to make?
We ensure that testing is prioritised in the areas with the greatest prevalence, and we look at not only the number of positive cases but the surveys and the positivity rate. Those all inform the needs. I understand why the hon. Lady rightly fights for more testing in her constituency, but we have to ensure that testing is used in the places where it is most needed. We know more about this because we now have mass testing, with capacity for over a quarter of a million tests a day, which means that we can take a more targeted and local approach.
Unfortunately, as case rates have gone up, we have needed to introduce more local measures. On Friday, we introduced new restrictions on household mixing for Wigan, Stockport, Blackpool and Leeds, and today, I must announce further measures for the parts of the north-east where we introduced local action a fortnight ago. Unfortunately, the number of cases continues to rise sharply. The incidence rate across the area is now over 100 cases per 100,000. We know that a large number of these infections are taking place in indoor settings outside the home, so, at the request of the local councils, with which we have been working closely, we will introduce legal restrictions on indoor mixing between households in any setting. We do not take these steps lightly, but we must take them now, because we know that swift action is more likely to bring the virus under control. The quicker we can get this virus under control, the quicker we can restore the freedoms that we all enjoy in the north-east and across the country.
All the time that we have been fighting to suppress the virus, so too we have fought to protect people—through the furlough scheme, the bounce back loans and funding for social care, the charities, the arts, as well as unprecedented support for the NHS, so that we could protect it through the peak and now work through the backlog that the peak inevitably caused. Through the huge challenges, we secured the supply lines for vital PPE, and hence we can now launch our PPE winter plan. I would like to pay tribute to Lord Deighton, his team and all the businesses that are stepping up, because their work has put us in such strong stead to protect those who are performing heroics on the frontline.
Finally, the best way to protect us in the long term, for our lives and our livelihoods, is a vaccine. Work progresses as fast as is safely possible. On Friday, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation published its interim guidance on how we propose to prioritise access to a vaccine as soon as one becomes available. A huge planning effort is under way, led by the NHS and with the support of the armed forces, to ensure that we are ready for a roll-out as soon as is feasibly possible. Building on years of experience of the annual flu vaccine roll-out, the national effort to come brings hope to us all.
All the way through this pandemic, I have welcomed debate and scrutiny in this House. On Wednesday, we will debate and vote on extending the vital measures in the Coronavirus Act 2020, which provides powers that are critical to the control of the virus. I urge all colleagues to work together to ensure that we come through this in the best possible way, because ultimately, wherever in this Chamber we may sit, we are all on the same side, steadfast in our determination to defeat this deadly virus.
Almost 1 million people worldwide have died from an illness that no one had heard of 10 months ago. Here in the United Kingdom, almost 42,000 have lost their lives.
Last week, I spoke to bereaved families who want justice. They have shared with me heartbreaking stories such as Tony Clay’s. He was 60, fit and healthy, with mild blood pressure. He had returned from France to be with his family and grandson. He travelled through airports and train stations. He was under 70, so he did not think he was at risk. After 12 days at home, he felt flu-like symptoms. After 14 days, he was admitted to hospital. He deteriorated. He died, leaving behind devastated loved ones and a heartbroken grandson. There are thousands and thousands of stories of shattered families from these past six months. We cannot bring back lost loved ones, but we must ensure that lessons are learned, and an inquiry must take place at the appropriate time.
We are now facing a resurgence, or a second wave or second tide—whatever we call it, we know that prevalence is rising. We are seeing an increase in admissions to critical care: according to the latest data from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, September’s critical care admissions reveal that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in admissions, as are people from the very poorest backgrounds. That is a sobering reminder that covid thrives on inequalities, interacting with a number of long-term conditions such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and other non-communicable diseases—conditions that we know disproportionately cluster in the most disadvantaged groups of society.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the evidence on the disproportionate impact on BAME communities and poorer communities, the Government have yet to take the steps required to improve their outcomes? A potential second wave could be further devastating for those groups who have already been hit hard.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We had the Public Health England report before the summer; we need those recommendations to be implemented. The point I am coming to, which reinforces the point my hon. Friend makes, is that yes, suppressing the virus depends on a vaccine and its distribution, but it is also clear that we need a health inequalities strategy as well.
We face this second wave knowing more about the virus than we did earlier in the year. Treatment has improved and continues to improve—I pay tribute to the national health service and our medical science base for that—but exposure to the virus remains dangerous. Indeed, many who catch the virus are left with serious debilitating conditions—the so-called long covid. The Secretary of State has promised us long covid clinics, but we are still waiting for them to open.
The Opposition reject those siren voices who say that we must let the virus rip through the population while the vulnerable shield. That may suit those with financial security and support in place, but for the disadvantaged it could be lethal. Others say that we must put the economy first, but controlling the virus and protecting the economy are linked objectives, not in conflict with each other. There can be no economic renewal without a healthy population, so taking action now to save lives and minimise harm is in our long-term economic interests.
I was not directing my comments at any particular Member, but the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a debate raging on that very point and I was repeating a comment not a million miles away from the remarks the Secretary of State made at the Dispatch Box.
We support a strategy to suppress this virus to save lives, minimise harm and keep children in school, which brings me to the debate raging about restrictions and the role of the House in imposing these restrictions. Neither the Secretary of State nor I came into politics to impose curtailments on our liberties, but when faced with a virus that spreads with speed and severity and when faced with the biggest public health crisis for over 100 years, we understand the need for restrictions: these restrictions are about preventing harm.
That is why, in March, when the Prime Minister invited the then Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and me to Downing Street to discuss these restrictions, we offered our support and co-operation. That is not to say that we do not have deep concerns about the Act to be debated on Wednesday—the Coronavirus Act 2020. We believe the Care Act easements, because of how they affect people in receipt of care, must be switched off. We maintain deep concerns about the rights of people detained under the Mental Health Act, and we need reassurances about the rights of children with special educational needs and disabilities. We will be looking to Ministers to offer us such reassurances on Wednesday.
However, this House should of course play a greater role in the scrutiny of legislation. As the Member for Leicester South, I share Members’ frustration when restrictions are imposed, when the rules for our constituents are unclear and confusing because the relevant statutory instrument has not yet been drafted, or when rules come out at 11.30 at night. Indeed, I share the incredulity of Members when instruments come so late to Committee that they are out of date—my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) was debating the measures to close zoos on the day that zoos were reopening—and I of course share the frustration of Members when fines are imposed and there has not been proper debate across this House.
If this House can find a way for better scrutiny of these measures, we would of course be extremely sympathetic, but we will not support attempts to scupper restrictions that are clearly in the public health interest. Our priority will always be saving lives, minimising harm and keeping our children in school. Until a vaccine is discovered and distributed, that depends on driving the R value to below 1 with containment measures, social distancing and an effective test, trace and isolate strategy.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise his worries about when a vaccine will be available, but there are many who feel a vaccine could well be available next year. The key thing is that we have a process in place to ensure that that vaccine, when discovered, is distributed rapidly across the country.
Briefly, does the hon. Member recognise that, although he is quite right that nobody came here to restrict liberties—in fact, most of us came to this place to promote liberties—the whole point of promoting liberty in this place is that we must balance liberties? There is obviously the liberty of individuals who are seeking to work, and he spoke about the poorest members of our community, but many of the poorest members of the communities I represent are the ones who are suffering from lockdowns in different ways. Would it not therefore be right for this House to debate—quite rightly not to reject all lockdowns, but at least to debate—the different political choices that are being made as these questions are being asked?
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Many of my constituents are particularly affected by the restrictions that we have put in place—I will develop this point in a moment—but I will not take any more interventions, because I am well aware that the huge number of Members are seeking to catch your eye, Mr Speaker.
Heading into the first wave, we were too slow. The first cases reached the UK on 31 January. On 5 March, the Prime Minister talked about taking it on the chin and boasted about shaking hands with people. On 7 March, people were advised to self-isolate. A pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation on 11 March. On 12 March, testing and tracing in the wider community was paused. On 16 March, advice was issued against non-essential travel. On 20 March, pubs and restaurants were shut, but throughout, infections continued to climb. Finally, on 24 March, we went into a national lockdown. We could see what was happening in Italy, Spain and France, but we waited and waited, and, again, we can see what is happening now in parts of Europe. Let me be clear with the House: a second national lockdown would be catastrophic for society, for families who have spent so long apart, and for our economy. What is needed is action to avoid that, alongside clarity about which restrictions work and how long they will be in place.
Across vast swathes of the north and the midlands, families have been denied the chance to see each other in homes and private gardens. Restrictions have been placed on visiting loved ones in care homes. Many ask why they cannot go to see their grandmother, but can sit with strangers in the pub. There are parts of the country, such as Leicester and Bradford, that endured lockdown and that, more or less immediately on its lifting, had another four months of restrictions imposed on them. There will be huge long-term implications in terms of mental health and loneliness.
We understand the need for restrictions, but people need reassurance that there is an end in sight. Families want to know that they will be able to enjoy Christmas together. When will Ministers outline the criteria that will allow a daughter in Bradford to hug her elderly parents, or grandchildren in Leicester to cuddle their grandmother? If after a certain time limit, infections have not abated in cities such as Leicester or Bradford, where they have had restrictions for four months, will the Secretary of State instead impose alternative restrictions, so that families can visit their loved ones again? I urge Ministers to consider that.
I understand that tracing data show that infections spread in households, but that the virus is caught outside and brought into the house. The most recent Office for National Statistics surveillance report states that
“eating out was the most commonly reported activity in the 2-7 days prior to symptom onset.”
Hospitality accounts for one fifth of all covid transmissions. We support the restrictions announced last week, but many are now questioning how effective they will be in containing the virus. This weekend, we have seen pictures of people piling out of pubs at 10 o’clock on the dot into busy streets, public transport packed, and supermarkets busy as people buy more drink. How does that help contain the spread of the virus?
I ask the Secretary of State to undertake a rapid and transparent review of all the evidence on the 10 o’clock rule and to report back to Parliament this week. I also ask him quickly to publish a strategy outlining what further containment steps could be introduced to avoid a second national lockdown, keep our children in school, and allow families to see each other.
Secondly, both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State last week referred to airborne transmission. Emerging evidence now suggests that there is greater aerosol transmission than we earlier thought. That has huge implications for ventilation in sites, which often use circulated air—for example, student halls of residence. I urge Ministers to come forward as a matter of priority with new guidance on aerosol airborne transmission for buildings.
Avoiding a second national lockdown also depends on an effective test, trace and isolate regime. The problems with testing have been outlined by Members across the House for weeks now, so I do not need to repeat all the stories. We have rehearsed the arguments back and forth week after week, but, in responding to the debate later, will the Minister give us some more details about so-called Operation Moonshot? Apparently, the Government intend to deliver millions of tests a day with a plan for 4 million a day by December. It is set to cost £100 billion, which is more than 70% of the NHS England budget, with more contracts for the very firms that have failed to deliver an effective test and trace system today.
Instead of moonshots that cost the earth, why not invest in our network of NHS and university labs? I have asked the Secretary of State this before: will he validate quickly pooled PCR—polymerase chain reaction —testing, and will he invest in universities such as Southampton and Leicester to expand the saliva-based testing that they are piloting? We have urged him, and NHS providers urged him today, to introduce regular and routine testing for all frontline NHS staff? Will he deliver on that before the winter to improve infection control in hospitals?
Will the Secretary of State update the House on the plans for university halls of residence? We have seen the pictures on our TV screens in the past 24 hours.
Just as people have struggled to access tests in recent weeks, for those who receive a test, it is taking longer to get the result. Care home staff report that it takes days to receive a test result. Rather than the 24 hours to turn around a test that the Prime Minister promised us, in some instances it is now taking 35 hours. Will the Secretary of State tell us when the Prime Minister’s promise of 80% of tests being turned around in 24 hours will be met?
The Secretary of State knows that we think that his tracing system is not as effective as it should be. Ministers should have invested in shoe-leather epidemiology; instead, we got a Serco call centre. For decades, our local health protection teams kept us safe, testing, tracking and isolating infectious disease. They are trained in the fundamentals of infectious disease control, and they should be leading this work, not Serco. That would be much more effective.
Communication in a pandemic is absolutely key, but over the weeks we have had hyperbole: “world-beating”, sending it packing in 12 weeks, and so on. I urge the Government to commit to regular televised briefings from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.
Yes, them, because they provide the details of what is really happening. Will the Secretary of State set up a website on which the Government can publish clear, location-specific instructions so that people can tap in their postcode and know what is allowed and not allowed in their local area?
We talked about building surge capacity in the NHS and the Nightingales, but it was built on the back of delayed treatment and often postponed cancer screening. Throughout the first wave, staff were sent to the frontline with inadequate personal protective equipment, and many are now exhausted. They need more than rainbows in windows and applause rippling down our streets; they need wellbeing support and fair pay.
Patients need reassurance that they will get the care they deserve. The waiting list is at 4 million, more than 83,000 wait beyond a year to start treatment, and the numbers getting cancer screening have plummeted. Many who have lost a loved one will need extra mental health support. We are seeing more drink abuse and no doubt more substance abuse in this crisis. I pay tribute to the Unison drug and alcohol support staff in Wigan who are striking at We Are With You. They deserve their “Agenda for Change” pay, and I hope the Secretary of State ensures that they receive that pay award. The Chancellor promised us that the NHS would get whatever it needs. It now clearly needs a funded recovery plan, alongside a plan for social care to get us through this second wave.
We should have been better prepared for this pandemic, as pandemics were the No. 1 issue on the Government’s risk register. We entered this crisis more vulnerable and more exposed, after years of restricted growth in health expenditure, cuts to public health budgets and infrastructure, and failing to build meaningful integration between health and social care. Fundamentally, years of austerity left us with widening health inequality and growing poverty and disadvantage—the conditions on which pandemics thrive. Because of climate change, deforestation and urbanisation, we are set to see more pandemics, not fewer. When we overcome this virus—and we will—let us honour the lives lost and build a society that puts people first.
It is a great privilege to be called so early in such an important debate. This is my first opportunity to address the House since leaving the Government earlier this month, so I want to pay tribute to those I worked with in local government and my former Department. It was a great privilege, and they are exceptional people.
Having stood recently in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s place, I can testify that this is a difficult time to be in government. I pay tribute to him and his colleagues for everything they are doing on our behalf at a moment of national crisis. I know how exacting it is.
This is clearly a very important moment in our national debate about our strategy on coronavirus. It is a time for clarity, consistency and courage. I welcome the measures that the Prime Minister announced last week. Covid-19 is an awful disease and it is essential that the public respect the rules that are in place for their protection, from the rule of six to the guidance on hands, face, space, which will undoubtedly save lives. I supported those measures precisely because they are limited and proportionate. Fundamentally, we owe it to the British people to be totally honest with them about the situation. Until we have a vaccine, we are going to be living alongside the threat of the virus and some of those we love may die. We do not know when a vaccine will become available or precisely how effective it will be.
Faced with that reality, we need to be clear sighted about the choices that are open to us. It is therefore right that, as the Government have chosen, we should seek to keep as much of our economy and society open as we possibly can. If we could say with confidence that by holding on for just a few weeks or indeed a few months, we would reach a certain cure, the calculus might look very different. Given that we cannot do that, to return to a national lockdown would be not only untenable but wrong.
The toll such a lockdown would exact would be stark and serious. It would manifest itself in grim statistics and it would fall to us in this House to reflect on them in the years ahead: the cancers undiagnosed, the jobs and businesses lost, the soaring demand on our mental health services. It would also creep in like sea mist in less tangible ways: the opportunities forgone by a generation of young people, the loneliness of millions parted from their loved ones again. It is therefore my firm belief that now is a time for resolution, when we must do our utmost to live without fear, even in the most dangerous times, as generations of Britons have done before us.
That is not a counsel of despair. As my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary said, thanks to the hard work of so many people, we are incomparably better placed than we were in March to live alongside the virus. From the Nightingale hospitals to new treatments such as dexamethasone, to new capabilities such as the outstanding NHS covid app, we grow stronger almost every week in our ability to defeat the virus. That is reflected in the improved mortality figures this time round.
As I am sure colleagues across the House have done, I visited my local major hospital this summer to hear first-hand from them about how they have responded to the situation. I pay great tribute to all those at The James Cook University Hospital for everything they have done.
Although I respect everything that the Government are doing, I want to raise several points about the issues thrown up by local lockdowns. Today, my Conservative colleagues from the Tees valley and I have written to our local authorities asking them not to seek to go further than central Government require when it comes to the restrictions that are currently in place. The new measures that the Prime Minister announced need time to bed in.
That leads to a very important question for the Government. As the number of local lockdowns across the north of our country continues to multiply, are we in effect seeing a national, or at least semi-national lockdown imposed by default? Some 16 million people are now living under the shadow of those restrictions. What is our exit strategy from this situation? As we look at the likes of Leicester, Greater Manchester or West Yorkshire, we see that none of them are leaving the restrictions. What hope can I offer my constituents, as we stand on the brink of further intervention in the Tees valley, that there is a way out? It will be a long, hard and lonely winter if there is no such exit strategy. That is why my hon. Friends the Members for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and I have taken a stand today.
How long can we realistically expect people to comply with those measures? As lockdown fatigue worsens, we must address the growing risk that tighter restrictions will punish the law-abiding while others are unable or unwilling to comply.
Indeed, the restrictions place a significant burden on our law enforcement agencies.
I will close by dealing with the slightly different local lockdowns that are in place across the country. The lack of consistency makes compliance harder and I urge my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and Government Front Benchers to reflect on possible options to try to establish the clearest possible protocol so that we can get uniformity of decision making across those areas. I clearly recognise that we are trying to make the most effective intervention in each area, reflecting the local circumstances. However, I worry that a slightly different situation in the north-east, compared with West Yorkshire and compared with Greater Manchester, risks making it harder for those who want to do their best to get behind the Government’s measures to do the right thing. Better observance must be our collective goal.
I offer my right hon. Friend and our health service every good wish as we try to overcome the challenges. At a moment when there are no easy choices, let us ensure that we enable our country to live rather than simply exist in the period that lies ahead so that the country we return to on the other side of this dreadful situation is happy, healthy, successful and free.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke). I had the pleasure of shadowing him when he was at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I always found him to be incredibly courteous and I wish him well for however long he is on the Back Benches—I know he has plans to return to Government at some point.
We know that Governments all around the world have faced the same challenges with this pandemic, whether that is understanding how the virus transmits, how a lockdown should occur and, indeed, under what circumstances, or obtaining PPE. For many, this was unknown territory. For most of us as politicians, no one or nothing truly prepares us for a global pandemic.
It would be remiss of me not to start by mentioning the successful measures put in place, including the public’s overwhelming co-operation with the lockdown restrictions, the unity we have seen in our neighbourhoods and constituencies, especially in offering a helping hand to those who are shielding, and the countless community groups and volunteers who have mobilised during the outbreak. I also acknowledge and say thank you for the brave commitment of so many of our NHS and care staff, who continue to battle the virus every single day.
However, with the stark warnings offered by the Prime Minister last week about a second wave of covid-19 cases and the further restrictions put in place to keep as many of us as safe as possible, we must therefore learn the mistakes made in the earlier half of the year. It is imperative that we all move forward looking at what works best and, most importantly, what we urgently need to improve upon. It is clear that the three most difficult aspects of the coronavirus pandemic have been controlling outbreaks in social care settings, providing enough PPE to those who need it, and setting up a functional and effective test, trace and isolate system. The economic response to covid and the mental health crisis and its legacy are much bigger issues that I am sure other colleagues will focus upon. In the interests of time and of being courteous to other Members, I will confine my remarks to the public health aspects of today’s debate.
I will start with the issue of test and trace. The Scottish contact tracing system, Test and Protect, was based on traditional public health teams, who have managed to reach over 98% of cases and 97% of contacts. Unfortunately, that success has not been mirrored by the British Government’s implementation of its testing and tracing. The Times found that in England, the percentage of successful searches between 1 pm on 16 September and midday on 17 September was just 43%. In comparison in Scotland, it was 97%. The Scottish contact tracing system is the best performing in the UK, particularly compared with the outsourced Serco call centres in England, which are barely reaching 60% of contacts. People are, on average, asked to travel 27 miles to the nearest centre, and at the peak of the shortages, a fifth of all UK postcodes were being directed to sites in another nation. We heard anecdotes in the Chamber only last week of people in Bolton reportedly being told to travel 90 miles to Wales to get a test. In Cambridge, residents were being told to go to Birmingham, Heathrow or Bradford. The ineffective tracing system in England means that thousands of people who may currently be infected with covid-19 are not being advised to self-isolate and, as such, are continuing to spread the virus at a rate leading towards a second wave.
The Scottish Government have also launched the Protect Scotland app, which I have spoken about in this Chamber and have urged people to download. I have downloaded the app in England. As somebody who spends probably half the week in England, I am more than happy to use my position to encourage as many people as possible to download the app. Over 1 million people have downloaded the app in Scotland, helping to effectively trace the virus across Scotland. That figure of 1 million represents 18% of the population, meaning that the figure is already above the 15% threshold required to make a measurable impact on viral spread.
Despite the Scottish Government’s success, however, there are still challenges from the UK Government—mainly, that the Scottish NHS has increased its testing capacity considerably for hospital patients, but instead of funding testing of the public through the expansion of NHS labs, the UK Government set up an entirely separate system organised by Deloitte. As it is a UK-wide system, we have seen an increase in demand in England, leading to appointments being cut in Scotland. In fact, there are multiple reports over the last week of people resident in England being advised to enter a Scottish postcode to obtain authorisation for a test, even though the test was carried out in the south of England. If not dealt with, this could seriously undermine Scotland’s well thought out and effective contact tracing system, and the incorrect data could give the impression that there is an outbreak somewhere where one does not exist. It is vital that we prepare for the second wave. In doing so, we must do everything possible to test as many people as possible, so that we have the most accurate figures and our contract tracing can prevent the transmission of this deadly virus.
I turn to the issue of personal protective equipment. One major challenge from the outset of the pandemic has been the hugely increased need for PPE such as masks, gowns and gloves, amounting to some 485 million items so far. In Scotland, we have had the advantage of central procurement and delivery being part of the Scottish NHS, along with having our own stockpile. Naturally, given the sheer quantity of PPE needed in the first few weeks of the outbreak, there were difficulties in transportation, especially to extra sites that needed additional equipment, including community clinics, GP surgeries, pharmacies and care homes. Our Trade Minister, my good friend Ivan McKee, worked tirelessly to maintain imports of PPE, which came in through Prestwick airport. The Scottish Government invested in the development of our domestic industry so that 50% of our PPE is now manufactured in Scotland, making our future supply more secure.
When we compare the availability, transportation and supply of PPE under the SNP Scottish Government with the situation under the Tory Government here in Westminster, in every regard the SNP Government have been better prepared. The SNP Government put in place clear plans for the future in the event that we faced a second wave—as now, sadly, seems inevitable. The Conservative Government privatised the UK national stockpile and then ran down the stock, with some items up to 10 years out of date, putting at risk the lives of key workers in the NHS—the very same workers we went out to clap for every Thursday night at the beginning of the pandemic.
In 2016, the UK Government was found to have failed woefully in pandemic preparedness. Exercise Cygnus accurately predicted that the NHS would be pushed into a state of crisis if an infectious and deadly disease ever came to the shores of these islands. It highlighted that an effect of such a pandemic could be a shortage of intensive care beds, vital equipment and even mortuary space.
Such predictions became a reality with the covid-19 pandemic, but even after the stark warnings of 2016, no action was taken. Instead, the Government chose effectively to hand out hundreds of millions of pounds in contracts to companies with no experience of providing PPE. The truth of the matter is that the British Government have used this public health crisis to benefit their friends. A contract was handed out without any public tender process to Public First, a company that is run by a former aide to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and an associate of Dominic Cummings. It should be no surprise to anyone that millions of pieces of PPE were substandard and even unusable. Much of it never materialised and was never delivered to the countless NHS workers who needed it so badly.
It will come as no surprise to the right hon. Gentleman that I am not in a position to be particularly complimentary about how the UK Government have handled this pandemic. I am sure that if he has looked at any of the statistics, he will have reached a similar conclusion, but that is something for him to consider as he prepares to speak this afternoon.
I will deal now with the distressing issue of deaths in social care settings. We simply cannot ignore the fact that the death rate in care homes across the UK has been utterly devastating. In my own constituency, Burlington Court care home in Cranhill saw 13 deaths in just one week. That number can never be regarded simply as a statistic. Each and every one of those residents was a family member and a loved one who will never be forgotten.
The attacks that have suggested that that problem was specific to Scotland are incorrect. In May, the London School of Economics highlighted that more than half of covid-related deaths in care homes in England were not being reported. The Scottish Government made a sustained effort to report all care home deaths so that our figures were as accurate and up to date as possible. Indeed, the data published by the Office for National Statistics clearly shows that deaths in Scotland were not significantly higher than in the rest of the UK. It highlights that excess deaths in care homes in England and Wales were 45 per 100,000—almost exactly the same as Scotland at 44 per 100,000.
Some have blamed the covid outbreaks in care homes on patients being discharged from hospital, but studies actually suggest that there were multiple entry points into care homes from the community via visitors and staff, particularly staff working in several care homes. It would arguably have been even more dangerous to place already-vulnerable care home patients in hospitals, with space already being a valuable commodity in our busy hospitals, particularly in intensive care units. The Scottish Government were quick to step in when it became clear that the social care sector was struggling, providing considerable support in the form of extra funding and supplying additional PPE from NHS supplies. Until this intervention from the Scottish Government, some care homes were not even paying sick pay, which meant that staff could not afford to stay home when they might have had covid symptoms or, indeed, were a contact. To further assist with this, the Scottish Government offered NHS staff to care homes, preventing them from being forced to use agency staff who could arguably be seen as spreading the virus.
The covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the underlying problems within the social care system in the whole of the UK. Currently Scotland is the only UK nation to provide free personal care, which allows two thirds of those who need it to stay in their own homes, but the vast majority of care homes are private businesses, and, until now, they were, without doubt, less connected to the rest of the health and social care sector. In the light of the pandemic and the devastating losses from our care homes, the Scottish Government plan to carry out a review of social care provision and consider developing a national care service, which I warmly welcome and see from my constituency experience as being a good thing.
Globally, the pandemic is still raging, and we must listen to health experts who are very clear on the dangers of a second wave. Summer was our time to learn and prepare for winter. We now have the relevant experience to learn from all the mistakes made in the first part of the year, and they are legion. In the public health response, it is vital that we focus on these three issues: outbreaks in care homes, the availability of PPE, and having an effective test and trace system in place. We know that a second wave is now upon us, and we all know what we need to do. We must all play a role. My party—Scotland’s Government—is committed to playing its part in helping to defeat this deadly virus.
Less than a year ago, I celebrated what I thought was the election of a sceptical and liberal Conservative Administration. Now, I am left wondering if the Prime Minister has not been abducted by Dr Strangelove and reprogrammed by the SAGE over to the dark side.
The purpose of politicians is to impose a sense of proportion on science and not to be in thrall to it. I will make myself very unpopular, but I believe that the appearance of the chiefs last week should have been a sacking offence. When they presented that graph, it was with the caveat that it was not a prediction, but nevertheless it was clear that they presented it as a plausible scenario, with its 50,000 cases per day by mid-October based on the doubling of infections by the week. Not on one day since March have there been infections on a day that were double that of the same day of the week preceding—not once. Where did this doubling come from? What was their purpose in presenting such a graph? It was the purpose of the fat boy in “The Pickwick Papers”:
“I wants to make your flesh creep.”
It was “project fear”. It was an attempt to terrify the British people, as if they had not been terrified enough.
I have been banging on about this since March, and with every criticism I have made, I have been told that the Government were relying on the best possible science. So I was delighted by the letter one week ago today with the nuanced criticism of Professors Heneghan, Gupta and Sikora. I believe that the Government now have to answer that criticism. I am glad that the consensus in the scientific community is broken and the critics are speaking out.
I do not underestimate for one moment the horrible nature of this disease and its post-viral syndrome, but in terms of the United Kingdom’s killers, it is 24th in the league, accounting for only 1.4% of deaths. As a consequence, I believe the Government’s policy has been disproportionate. By decree, they have interfered in our private and family lives, telling us whom we may meet, when we may meet them and what we must wear when we meet them. We have the cruelty of elderly people in care homes being disoriented, unable to see the faces of their loved ones or to receive a hug. We have the tsunami of deaths that we may experience shortly as a consequence of undiagnosed cancers and heart disease, and the discontinuation of clinical trials.
I deduce that it was much more proportionate. All sorts of criticisms are levelled against the Swedish Government that, on examination of the data and comparing like for like, are without foundation. I certainly hold up the Swedish model as an alternative.
We have seen the eye-watering costs that we must now all face for a generation, having closed down our economy for all those months as a consequence of the Government’s policy. We face the crushing of enterprises, the destruction of livelihoods, and unemployment among young people, all as a consequence of an overreaction. I understand that there is now some question as to whether students will be allowed to return from university at Christmas. I say most gently to the Minister that the last Administration that sought to restrain celebrations at Christmas was during the Commonwealth, when the Lord Protector was left musing in public whether, if he were to arm one in 10, that would be enough. How many marshals will be required?
I conclude by saying that the policy of the Government has been disproportionate in response to this threat. There may be a virus one day that threatens our very way of life, but this is not it, even if we are behaving as if it were.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). I agreed with precisely zero of what he had to say, but this is not the first time that has happened in our time in this House.
As the first wave of the covid-19 pandemic in the UK began to recede over the summer, some sobering truths became evident. The UK had suffered one of the highest per capita death rates in the world and taken a far larger economic hit than comparable developed economies. Many attribute that dismal double whammy of failure to a Government who were too complacent at the beginning and too slow to lock down and prevent the death rate spiralling so badly out of control.
UK resilience to the threat of pandemics has been badly undermined by a decade of austerity, which weakened the ability of the NHS and both national and local government to react in time to prevent the disease taking hold. This failure became all too evident in the chronic shortage of personal protective equipment, which put key workers at unnecessary risk and led to the deaths of all too many, especially in the NHS and social care sectors.
The abandonment of testing so early in the pandemic meant that those charged with protecting us were effectively blind to its development in the community. That increased the chances of a total lockdown being the only viable response the Government could turn to. The Prime Minister recognised that all too belatedly on 23 March.
It is unclear how many lives the Prime Minister’s personal struggle with his libertarian instincts and his complacent reaction to the looming threat cost.
I listen carefully to what the hon. Lady says in this House. She is very experienced and she sat on the Front Bench when the Labour party was in government. May I clarify what she is saying? If I understand correctly, she seems to be suggesting that there was a way to avert a national lockdown, which most other countries in the world have had, by different actions being taken prior to March this year. Is she seriously saying that?
I was trying to say that complacency at the beginning caused many more deaths; it caused us to have a higher death rate and a bigger economic hit than other countries. From the beginning there has been a problem with mixed and often contradictory messaging from the Government about the rules they wish people to follow, and a lack of transparency about how those decisions are made. Not only has that undermined the efficacy of public health messages, but it has genuinely confused people who wish to do the right thing.
The Government’s moral authority to order the greatest restrictions on personal freedom since the second world war has been completely undermined by two things. The first is the revelation of Dominic Cummings’s rule-breaking trip to Durham, and the Prime Minister’s refusal to sack him. That prompted public anger on an unprecedented scale, persuading many that there was one law for them and a completely different one for the Prime Minister’s friends.
The second is the lack of transparency and parliamentary oversight surrounding ministerial pronouncements on the rules. All too often the rules appear to be contradictory, almost arbitrary, and difficult to justify. The public were asked to work from home one minute, only to be urged to return to work and save the high street the next. Now, as evidence of a second wave of the virus emerges, people are being ordered back home again, but not before the Government spent half a billion pounds on subsidising meals out in August, and opened air bridges to half of Europe, only to reimpose unenforced quarantine requirements on those who had been trusting enough to believe them.
We are now told that we cannot meet people at home or in their gardens unless we are in their bubble, but we can go to the pub with six households, as long as we leave by 10 pm. All those rules are different in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Respect for the rules will evaporate if the Government do not do a better job of justifying them, and ensuring that they are coherent and understood.
The Government have centralised all decision making, and outsourced procurement for test and trace, leading to a failing system. They have not involved local public health or local authorities in the decision-making process. Only two weeks ago I asked the Health Secretary about sudden increases in infections in Wirral. He replied that that issue had been considered by silver and gold committees, but no one bothered to tell Wirral Council that that was happening, and at the height of the pandemic it was reduced to watching daily press conferences to try to discern what was happening.
We cannot fix test and trace without more local co-operation. In Wirral, pillar 1 tests now take 48 hours, and we have an infection rate of 157 per 100,000, and rising. Pillar 2 tests—when people can get them—take between five and seven days to get results, thereby rendering their effect, which is to get people to isolate, much less likely to work.
How can we get less centralisation and more transparency into the Government’s response to this pandemic? When considering parliamentary accountability, perhaps we should look at what New Zealand has done. It set up a special committee—it is called a Select Committee but it does not have to be—and it has a majority of Opposition Members on it, although it is a rotating membership. The committee is led by the Leader of the Opposition, it has unusual powers to subpoena witnesses and papers, and it can subject any Government decisions to that unusual but timely form of scrutiny. That worked well in New Zealand, because it allowed policy making to be improved by parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.
As we move to discuss the new measures on Wednesday, I believe that this House should carefully consider doing what the New Zealand Parliament has done. We should allow the Government to give Opposition Members that duty so that we can get some air, transparency and accountability into the decisions that the Government are currently making behind closed doors.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who made useful points as to how we, as a House, may scrutinise and be involved better in some of the decision-making process.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this subject today—it is the first such occasion. Let me start by thanking everyone who has worked so hard, not just people on the frontline, but Ministers, to try to grapple with this awful virus. I do not envy them the burden of their responsibilities, and I know they are doing their very best at this difficult time and that not all will go well first time around. They deserve our thanks, from across this House.
It is widely accepted that covid is here for the long term, which means we have to learn to live with it. As the Chancellor said so eloquently last week,
“we must learn to live with it, and live without fear.”—[Official Report, 24 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 1155.]
We know that lockdown is not a cure. The restrictions give us temporary respite, but we are waking up now to the full cost of what that temporary respite means, not just in terms of livelihoods, jobs and people’s futures, but in terms of the suffering and sacrifice that so many have endured, in different ways. Long-term lockdown is not a solution; it is not living with covid. In many ways, it is hiding from covid and simply hoping it will go away. We know that there is much we can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. We have seen the measures that shops, schools, pubs and restaurants take to stop the spread, and individually we have learnt to adjust our behaviour.
What we now need is a long-term strategy. It is a long-term problem and we have to approach it from first principles. We need a sense of perspective. The measures we introduce for the whole population need to be proportionate to the risk. Understandably, decision makers felt a sense of panic back in March, but now we know much more about this terrible virus. We know about the groups most affected. We know that the horrifying worst-case-scenario numbers we were given were never realised. so now we can be smarter and more targeted in our quest to prevent avoidable deaths. There is no need to impose indiscriminate, and sometimes arbitrary or capricious, restrictive measures on everyone.
This is a new virus, and the science is young. Unlike the scientists, the Government have to consider wider issues and not just the science. The Government have to consider not only the impact of lockdown on the economy and our health, but the social and moral consequences. They have to grapple with the big-picture issues such as the value of freedom, and to decide whether a covid death matters more than any other preventable death—I say it does not. The Government also have to bring the people with them. We all know which people are most in need of protection and we can understand why they need protection, but it is far less easy to understand why we are locking down students who can be safely exposed to the virus when we do not place similar restrictions on the people most at risk.
We need to understand risk and probability, and that robust, evidence-based data really matters. It is very uncomfortable being frightened to death by scientists presenting charts to the nation that they must know are wrong; that chart last Monday undermined public trust, as it was quite clearly pushing a worst-case scenario without telling us the probability of such a scenario occurring. Was it designed to instil fear in order to control the public? Is that how we want to govern?
Emergency powers were given to the Government when this was an emergency, and that was the right thing to do, but we all accept that we have moved on from there. I urge the Government to understand that we now need to involve Members of Parliament in this process in a different way from that which has happened so far. We may not be experts in science but we are experts in the people we represent. Day in, day out, we are engaging with our constituents, and their needs and concerns, and it is to our constituents that we owe a duty. I ask Ministers to allow MPs to bring that knowledge and expertise to bear, as I genuinely believe it would aid decision making.
I wish to end by thanking every member of this Government who have worked on this in recent months—they have my total admiration. It is not possible to get things right every time, and I applaud them for being so brave in keeping going despite the difficulties and challenges they have experienced. But I ask that they challenge the science with pragmatism and are not blinded by it; science is often as much about opinions as politics is, and we should never disregard the people we were sent here to serve.
We should be grateful to the Secretary of State today for his frankness, but we should not necessarily accept his binary choice between his way and a mass spread of the virus. Frankly, I am concerned about his basing everything on waiting for a vaccine. That may take some time—it may take years—and it will almost certainly not be universally effective. Manufacturing and distribution will also have to be effectively managed. Today, in effect the Secretary of State told many businesses—particularly those in the hospitality, entertainment, sporting, gambling and leisure industries—and their employees that they have a very uncertain future. That is hundreds of thousands of jobs. Of course, we need to have some restrictions, but they must be balanced, proportionate, based on firm evidence and include those involved, who really know their own businesses.
I have to ask whether the Government have the data on what is going on. Last week, I tabled a question to the Health Secretary asking
“how many cases of acute respiratory infections which resulted in at least one positive test for covid-19 there were in the most recent week for which figures are available; and what proportion of those cases occurred in…care homes…the workplace…education settings and…pubs and food outlets.”
The reply I got was that
“it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period.”
They have not got the data. Incidentally, I also asked
“which university and college laboratories in the West Midlands”—
I did not want a national answer—
“have been commissioned by NHS Test and Trace”.
Back came the answer that
“it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period.”
Again, the Government do not seem to know what is happening in their own business. It is quite absurd. Either they are flying blind without adequate and current data or the figures would reveal that they are thrashing around, trying to be seen to be doing something .
In earlier interventions, we dealt with the question of seeking to bring renewal and variations on regulations under parliamentary control so that our constituents can give their views and hold us to account for our votes and decisions. That is how it should work in a democratic society. At present, not only do we not have parliamentary government but we do not seem to have Cabinet government, either. Even Cobra is meeting intermittently. Policy seems to be made by a small clique that seems to comprise the Health Secretary and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, with substantial input from Dominic Cummings and some involvement of a debilitated and marginalised Prime Minister. It is not good constitutional theory and it is not working in practice. That is why Parliament needs to take back control.
What do the Government need to do to get the economy going? Governments have a number of roles. One is as a legislator and another one is as a funder along with the Bank of England. They are undertaking those, but national and local government have another role as a massive customer, and they should be looking at how they can bring orders through to get our industry moving again. I find it extraordinary that the Defence Secretary seems to be dithering around with the fleet solid support ships. I find it amazing that the Department for Transport, with great fanfare, announced funding for electric and hydrogen buses earlier in the year, but when I talk to the local passenger transport executive and the local bus company, I hear nothing is happening. We need that money flowing through, we need those production lines running, and we need those supply chains up and running, so we can be ahead of the world.
Aviation is an industry in which, both in construction and in airports, we are currently in a major position in the world. The airports are offering solutions that have been tried and tested in other jurisdictions to get themselves moving, yet this panic-stricken Government have locked down on aviation. It is damaging people’s holidays, but it also means that, when the recovery comes, it will be in Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt and not in London or, indeed, our regional airports.
There are no easy choices. Cuts to diagnosis and surgery cost lives, a broken economy and high unemployment crush hopes, and education, or the lack of it, blights generations. That is why we need a more effective Government and a more effective system of governance, and that is frankly why Parliament has to take back some control to get this country moving again.
The Government rightly want to get the virus down and limit deaths, but they also need to promote livelihoods and economic recovery, and it is proving difficult to get that balance right. I do not accept the criticisms that say, “Well, the Government change their mind.” Of course the Government change their mind, because the virus waxes and wanes and the situation changes on the ground. They have to study the data and do the best they can.
What I would like to hear from Ministers is more in various directions where I think they could improve the position more quickly. The first is the issue of treatments. There has been some excellent work done in the United Kingdom, and it is great that a steroid has now been discovered that can make a decent improvement for various patients. That is great news and I welcome it, but what about the tests and trials we were promised when I raised this, many months ago now, of other antivirals, other steroids, antimalarials and clot-busting drugs? All those may have possible efficacy and they have their scientific and medical support around the world. We have great science here, so can we hear the results, please, Minister? Where have we got to? Are any of those going to work? The more and better treatments we can get and the more we can understand the different strands and features of this disease in different patients, the better it will be for keeping people safe.
We have learned that the Government now agree with me and others that they need to do a better job on isolation hospitals and on segregating patients who have this very contagious disease from all the other people who need to use our health service. I am pleased about that, but can we have some more details? Why cannot we simply use the Nightingale hospitals for covid-19—let us hope we do not need anything like that number of beds for this second wave—and keep all the other hospitals for non-covid? Or, if they are going to have shared facilities, certainly in urban areas where there is more than one hospital, can we have covid-19 hospitals and other hospitals that are open for other conditions? We do not want to see all the death rates for other things shooting up because people feel they cannot get access to their hospital or they are worried about going to their hospital because of covid-19.
We then have the issue of the damage this is doing to the economy. I understand the strategy, but it seems that the damage is going to fall unduly heavily on hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism, the areas where we need more social contact and where that is thought to encourage the transmission of the disease. As someone who does not normally recommend subsidies, I do think that when people are banned from going to work, running their business or doing their job, they deserve some public support. They are doing that in the public interest, because their Government have told them that their activity is particularly damaging to the public good. If that is true, surely we the taxpayers have to pay for that.
I assume that the Government think we will come out of this sometime, and we want to go back to a world where there are theatres, cinemas, entertainments, good restaurants and all the other things that make life worth while and give pleasure to families. We do not want to live in a world where they are gradually all closed because there is no support and they are not allowed to function at all. We need more intelligence to work alongside those sectors, to see how they can get ways of working and living alongside this virus all the time it is out there and causing us trouble.
There have already been hon. Members today requesting exit strategies, and I quite understand why it is very difficult for the Government to give us one, because they are all sorts of unknowns that I do not know any more than they or their advisers do. We understand that their preferred exit strategy is the discovery of a vaccine and the roll-out of massive quantities of that vaccine for sometime early next year, so that we can then come out of lockdown.
That would be great, but we cannot bank on that. There are ifs and buts in that and it may not happen, so there needs to be a strategy for a situation where we do not have a magic vaccine. That is why we need more work on safeguarding people who are most at risk and more work on how we can get other people back to work, to save those livelihoods and those businesses and to wean them gradually off subsidy, which they are going to need all the time they are banned from doing their job and keeping things ready for us when times improve.
Above all, the nation needs some hope. It needs a vision of a better future. It needs to believe that, in a few months’ time, something good will happen. It certainly does not need the threat of cancellation of Christmas or the threat that thousands of students will be locked away in rather small accommodation in their universities because there is a fear that they might spread the virus more widely.
I am glad to be able to speak in this debate, but the only reason I feel able to do so is that we are unlikely to have a Division today. Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I had to have surgery and radiotherapy. The radiotherapy caused damage to one of my lungs, and the advice from my doctors is to reduce my level of contact during the pandemic. That would be difficult, if not impossible, to do with the current voting system.
We had the absurd situation last week where a debate was held about proxy voting for MPs during the pandemic in which those MPs with proxy votes were not allowed to speak. As one of the MPs affected, I support a return to remote voting during the pandemic, which would help MPs who cannot vote safely in the present system and those in areas under local lockdown. I feel safe coming to the Chamber, where Mr Speaker has ensured that social distancing is observed, but because I cannot take part in voting, I cannot normally speak in debates. I hope that that can change.
There are, of course, many damaging consequences of this pandemic, one of which has been the way that people in care homes and mental health hospitals have been cut off from the outside world. At an early stage of the pandemic, most of these settings put in place a blanket ban on visiting. Six months on, we are hearing of the devastating impact that this lack of contact has had. Vic Rayner of the National Care Forum and Caroline Abrahams of Age UK have described the impact as
“residents going downhill fast, giving up hope and ultimately dying sooner than would otherwise be the case.”
They also point out that the social care winter plan outlines measures already in place that have created a blanket lockdown of care homes in areas of intervention. That is nearly 20% of all care homes in England, and even more than that are now covered by a blanket ban, after further restrictions were imposed over the weekend and today. There is a risk that needs to be managed in allowing visits, but there is also a risk to the physical and mental health of those being deprived of contact with the family members who mean the most to them. There is a balance to be struck, and I am arguing that we must move away from blanket bans.
The impact of banning visits is no less worrying in mental health hospitals. As well as social contact, visits from friends and families act as a check on the power of staff, who can otherwise have near total control over their patients. I am particularly concerned about this given the pausing of regular inspections by the Care Quality Commission. Having both inspections and family visits suspended has led to a deficit in accountability. We always hope that staff in such units act in the best interests of their patients, but we have seen a number of scandals where patients—particularly autistic people and people with learning disabilities—have been subject to cruel treatment and abuse at the hands of staff. Most shocking were the revelations of abuse at Winterbourne View in 2011 and at Whorlton Hall last summer, but last week, 10 staff were suspended at the Cygnet Yew Trees Hospital in Essex after they had been filmed dragging, slapping and kicking a patient, among other abuses.
It is unacceptable that there are any cases where autistic people and people with learning disabilities are subject to abuse, but it has become too common in the units where they are detained. Units like this should be closed down, and the people should be moved back to their own communities. A solution to this has been promised since 2012, but more than 2,000 people are still trapped in these units. Ministers first promised to close these units, then they modified that to say that the numbers would halve, but since 2015, the number has fallen by only 300. We now know that female residents at Cygnet Yew Trees were exposed to abuse during the pandemic when there were no inspections and no family visits.
I call on the Health and Social Care Secretary to set out what steps he is taking to investigate abuse in those settings during the pandemic. What is he doing to ensure that scandals such as those at Whorlton Hall and Cygnet Yew Trees Hospital become a thing of the past, as he and his predecessor both promised? I also ask him to lift the blanket ban on visits to care homes and to work with Age UK, the National Care Forum and John’s Campaign to develop guidance and support for safe care home visiting during the pandemic.
Finally, I want to support the comments made by our Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, today that the 10 pm curfew caused many problems at the weekend, with crowds on the street and on public transport. I support the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), the shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, for examination of the evidence on that. Further, in areas with extra restrictions such as Bolton, there is a need for extra financial support for the businesses that the Government have closed.
It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) back in her place safe and well. I am sure that all of us welcome her back to the House. Seven months and 42,000 deaths after the first person in the UK died from covid on 2 March, there is still great uncertainty about how we should best respond to the pandemic. We do not have a deployable vaccine against covid, and we do not have treatments effective enough to make it a condition not to worry about. We do not know whether the rise in the number of infections in recent weeks is petering out or whether it will do so. Neither do we know that it will not follow the pattern of last winter and spring of doubling, doubling and doubling again, and whether that happens over a week or 10 days it has the same ultimate impact in terms of running out of control. We do not know whether infection with covid this time will have as severe consequences as it did last time in terms of hospitalisations and deaths. We do not even know whether having covid is a guarantee, or makes it more likely, that someone cannot catch it again.
As we approach winter, there is still much that we do not know. What we do know is that good hygiene, social distancing and the isolation of people with covid worked in arresting the exponential growth of the virus last spring and that they are the only ways that we know how to control it again. I understand, therefore, the decision that this Government and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments have made to introduce or reintroduce some of the measures that impeded the spread of the virus the first time round. Winter is a bad time to be risking losing control of the virus. But that must be it. We must combine the restrictions that are being imposed with the prospect of relief from them.
By the spring, we must embark on a clearly different course. We cannot forever live in circumstances in which the way we live our lives can be upended without notice. By the spring, many of the unknowns will switch to being known. We will know whether a vaccine has been discovered and validated in trials to allow it to be deployed. We will know, after a full year of experience, whether research into treatments has established whether any of them can give us confidence that contracting covid is manageable.
By the spring, we should—frankly we must—have increased our testing capacity to the level at which we can quickly test and isolate anyone who has symptoms of the disease, and test the asymptomatic contacts of people who test positive. We should have developed testing technology to the point that rapid self-administered tests can be deployed at mass scale to allow people to have greater confidence in working in more crowded places and attending events with large audiences. If we gather and analyse data intensively during the months ahead, we should enter next spring with a much clearer idea of whether covid is becoming less dangerous in general and among which people it is a particular threat.
By next spring, we will know enough answers to adopt a settled strategy and to move beyond playing it by ear, so when we reach the spring and summer months—a more benign time for covid than the winter, with fewer illnesses whose symptoms can disguise or exacerbate covid—we must embark on a sustainable policy. We can either arrange the mass vaccination that will eliminate or at least substantially reduce the threat, if the production of such a vaccine has been successfully achieved over the winter; or if no successful vaccine has emerged, it is at that point that we will need to adjust how we live our lives and to live alongside the virus for the foreseeable future, taking the steps that we need to protect the vulnerable from infection while releasing the rest of the population to live their lives without unending or ever-changing restrictions.
My Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, will be taking evidence throughout the autumn and winter and co-ordinating our work with the Health and Social Care Committee, so that every week there will be an opportunity to have sustained questioning of the scientists and decision makers on the conduct of the pandemic here and overseas. From this intense period of inquiry and analysis of the evidence, we will put before Parliament, Ministers and the public our best recommendations, aimed at ensuring that the weeks ahead will be the last time that our lives have to be upturned, our economy stymied and our young people’s prospects blighted because of a virus that a combination of science and good policy should be capable of containing without the severity of the disruption that, sadly, we seem destined to endure this winter.
I have to admit that I have had to rewrite my speech in the light of the events that have occurred today in my area, Cleveland, with respect to covid-19.
I thank and pay tribute to all the NHS workers, care workers and key workers who keep the people of my constituency, Hartlepool, safe, well, protected and fed. I also pay tribute to all the local volunteers who have been relentless in their efforts to keep our communities going, to keep them together and to keep our citizens supported. I am very pleased—so pleased—that one of the national vaccine trials is taking place at our very own University Hospital of Hartlepool, which deserves much more Government investment to protect operational services. It is playing its part in this national crisis and I am proud of the people who work there.
I have changed my speech because of the Secretary of State’s announcement from the Dispatch Box of local restrictions for the Cleveland and Tees Valley area. On the letter written by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), who is not present to hear this speech, and his fellow Conservative MPs in the area—they are known as the Cleveland Conservative collective of MPs—to all local authorities in the Tees Valley area to say that they feel the authorities should not proceed with voluntary local restrictions, it would have been much better for them to have spoken to all Tees Valley MPs, rather than construct what is little more than a local, party political and divisive missive at a time when we should all be working together for the greater good in the Tees Valley. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not present to hear me say that.
Local restrictions are the last thing we want—they hurt business and keep families and loved ones apart—but where the R rate is so high, protective measures and local restrictions are put in place to protect people and stop the spread of virus, as we have seen in other areas. I have often disagreed with my local council—for example, it has a bizarre plan to stop traffic going up and down a local high street known as the York Road but it cannot explain why; it just says that it is because of covid-19 reasons. I will disagree with bizarre local plans like that and be vocal about them, but I have spoken to the council today about local restrictions and I have listened to our local public health authorities, and I understand why they feel that more resources and more support is needed to get Hartlepool through this crisis.
Until now, Hartlepool has been given only ad hoc provision, yet we persistently sat at the bottom of the fatalities league in the north-east—something we should rightfully be proud of. Even so, we had been in the red zone—the watch zone—for more than two weeks before routine testing materialised. I am no apologist for my council, which is a Conservative-backed collective, but in order to get a grip of this virus, and with a distinct lack of direction and leadership from the other side, on balance taking local control appears to be the way forward. People in Hartlepool—or anywhere else, for that matter—should not be made to drive miles just to get a test. It is absolutely ridiculous and my constituents rightly feel outraged by it. We need Government leadership and positive direction from the Government; unless we get that, the local option is the better option.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), and I am sorry to hear about the problems afflicting so many of his constituents in Hartlepool.
It was great to be in the Chamber when my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) addressed us earlier. I am privileged to be one of his constituents, and I can tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that when he speaks in this Chamber in the way that he did today, he speaks for tens of thousands of his constituents, not to mention hundreds of thousands elsewhere in the country.
I welcome this debate, but I note that it has come almost as a panic measure by the Government because they suddenly looked at the promises that were made at the time they introduced the Coronavirus Bill six months ago. In their introduction to that, they said that there would be
“safeguards to ensure proper oversight and accountability”
by Parliament. There has not been that proper oversight and accountability, and now, two days before a crucial vote on the renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020, they come forward with this welcome debate.
I will support the amendment to the motion on Wednesday tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) if it is selected. If it is not, I still hope that the Government will respond positively to the spirit of that amendment. However, even if the amendment is carried, I am not yet persuaded that I need to support the continuation of the Coronavirus Act. Why am I not persuaded of that? Because the Government are guilty of covert mission creep.
You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that when we were told six months ago that it was necessary to rush legislation through, it was on the basis that we wanted to prevent our NHS from being overwhelmed, with people dying from covid in hospital corridors and not being able to access the care that they needed. Fortunately, as a result of the emergency measures that were taken, that scenario never arose. People were taken to hospital, and they received the very best treatment in hospital and continue so to do.
The original objective of the legislation has been achieved, but, as so often happens with regulation brought in by Governments, they want to keep it. They say, “Oh, we need to keep it just in case.” That is why, in an Adjournment debate on 2 September, I demanded that if the Government were going to keep the regulations, it should be on the basis that there were proper regulatory impact assessments for them. We do not have those regulatory impact assessments. It is all most unsatisfactory.
I quote again from the introduction to the original notes on the Coronavirus Bill, which states:
“For many of the clauses, it is difficult to predict how a power would be used in a specific context, and therefore what the monetised costs would be. Thus, discussion of impacts is largely focussed on unmonetised considerations.”
However, it says that each individual case brought forward
“would require judgement on the specific impacts at that time.”
That has not been provided, and it means that we have had a whole lot of unintended consequences.
When I was at university in Scotland, closing time was 10 o’clock. I could have told somebody that if we returned to a 10 o’clock closing time in a Scottish university city or town, it was likely to result in the consequences we have seen. Why were the rules in relation to early closing in Scotland changed? Because that restriction was leading to people coming out on to the streets having got themselves totally drunk, and to a lot of violence. By extending the opening hours well beyond 10 o’clock, that violence was mitigated. That was common sense—but we are not allowed to look at that now.
I was much taken by the article in today’s Times by Clare Foges, who talks about the approach in Sweden—not just the technical side of it. In Sweden, they think of public health not just in terms of death and awful problems in hospitals but in terms of living life to the full. That is why I believe that the Government must now make it their strategy to enable us to live with the virus and without fear.
Coronavirus presents a very real threat to the health of our constituents and must be controlled, but we must also recognise that measures to control its spread are having a huge impact on our constituents’ lives and those impacts are not evenly felt. They have a disproportionate impact on particular groups, particular places and particular sectors. There is only a short time available, so I intend to restrict my remarks to three matters.
The first is the system for test and trace. If this is not working effectively, there is a likelihood of further restrictions, which none of us wants to see, yet we know that, over the last few weeks, many of our constituents who are unwell and who suspect they have contracted the virus have faced huge problems in accessing a test. When they do get a test, results are too slow. Last week, fewer than one in three people tested in person got their results back within 24 hours, and that proportion was lower last week than the week before. Once positive cases were identified, only around three quarters of those they were in close contact with were asked to self-isolate—again, a smaller proportion than in previous weeks.
The Prime Minister might say that testing and tracing has “nothing to do” with the spread of the disease, but everybody else understands that rapid testing, effective contact tracing and self-isolation are absolutely vital to identifying and containing any outbreak. The Government must acknowledge that there are problems, identify the source of those problems and then take swift action to fix them. Please can we get the Department of Health and Social Care to start working with others that can help? Numerous universities, including the University of Nottingham, are undertaking asymptomatic testing to control outbreaks on university campuses and protect the wider community. Those universities are now working together to share information, but the Government have gone AWOL. Where is the strategy?
That brings me to the second issue I want to raise—the need for Government support for universities and their students. The Government of course have had to act fast on some issues, but when it comes to universities, their action has been glacial. I asked for a statement from the Universities Minister on 9 July, and we still have not had one. Tomorrow, I understand, we are going to have an urgent question, but only because there are serious problems. Young people who are starting university this autumn were promised a mixture of online and face-to-face learning, but an increasing number of students want or need to study remotely, and to do so they need access to the right equipment and connectivity. We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds already face a digital divide, so what are the Government doing to bridge that divide and ensure that every student can access high-quality education, whether they are on campus or at home in self isolation?
Having seen some of the very worrying reports this weekend, what are the Government doing to ensure that students are properly supported at university, particularly if they are required to self-isolate? Many young people already experience anxiety and poor mental health. What are the Government doing, alongside universities, to ensure that young people—many away from home for the first time and now experiencing extra pressures as a result of restrictions—can access mental health support, and can the Minister assure us that there are systems in place to ensure their well-being? Will she also assure us that students will not be forced to remain in student accommodation, away from their families, when it comes to the end of term?
Thirdly, Nottingham does not just benefit from having two universities—it is a regional centre with a rich and diverse cultural sector and a thriving night-time economy, sectors that are vital to the city’s economy and provide employment for thousands of people. I am deeply concerned that the Chancellor’s economic plan simply ignores the disproportionate impact on these sectors. Pubs, bars and nightclubs are either still shut down or operating at reduced capacity, and the 10 pm curfew has made things even more difficult. Our theatres, arts venues and cinemas are reopening, but at far reduced capacities.
These businesses and the people who work in them need and deserve Government support, but the job support scheme simply does not provide it. If a business remains closed, it is impossible to access. For businesses that can access the scheme, it is cheaper to have a fewer number of full-time staff than to keep more people on in part-time work. My Labour colleagues have repeatedly called for a more targeted approach for a job recovery scheme that incentivises bringing more staff back part time and includes a training component. Of course it is welcome that the Chancellor has finally accepted the need to move away from the furlough cliff edge, but he is still letting down those sectors and those workers who most need support. Without a further change of direction, we can only see further job losses hitting my city hard.
I rise to do three things. The first is to praise the Government for everything they have achieved on PPE, on testing and on the track and trace app. In my libertarian soul, and in my instinct, my heart and my reason, I consider the Government’s track and trace app to be the very apotheosis of my worst fears. Yet over the weekend I studied what the Government have done. They have moved away from the first version, to the Apple and Google-distributed model, with all the private data remaining on the user’s phone. They have released a source code, both for the server side and for the client, which I very much welcome as a software engineer, although I doubt I shall be grinding through it. Against all my instincts—and in the knowledge that I am not the Member of Parliament for dogmatic libertarians across the country, with whom I generally agree, but in fact the MP for Wycombe—I have done the right thing: I have, against my expectations, installed the contact tracing app. I ran out of excuses, I have installed it, and I am allowing it to run even as we speak. I hope that will be of some reassurance, even to those libertarians who might condemn me for it.
Secondly, I want to say something about the science. I am not going to engage in amateur epidemiology, much as I have been enjoying picking it up, but I will praise my constituent and friend, Dr Raghib Ali, who is an epidemiologist. Unusually, he is an academic epidemiologist and also an acute medicine consultant who works in Oxford, so he is perhaps uniquely positioned to comment on the disease. He has been tweeting and writing about the disease. He is a very reasonable man. He has really helped me to keep my feet on the ground. I say to all Members who, like me, really hate and despise these restrictions on our freedom to look at what Dr Raghib Ali is writing. He has helped to keep me anchored in the truth that this is a very dangerous disease for people who are older and people who have pre-existing conditions, and we have just got to deal with it.
On the science, I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State were present. As he framed the problem between either suppression or letting it rip, I thought that our friend Mr Osborne was back framing the issue in terms of what I think is a false dichotomy. I think we need to take another look at the scientific advice. There are professors out there telling us that this is an optimisation problem—we need to maximise the lives saved and minimise harm. There is, I think, going to turn out to be a third way that enables us to minimise harm. The Department’s own figures have shown, as reported in The Daily Telegraph, that the cost of lockdown in quality adjusted life years, adjusted for comorbidities, was greater than the cost of the disease thus far. So if we wish to maximise human flourishing and save lives, we have to look extremely carefully at the science.
I am working with my friend Professor Roger Koppl, from Syracuse University and author of a book titled, perhaps unfortunately, “Expert Failure”, looking at what actually happens with expertise. I wrote a brief for the Prime Minister, which I have also tweeted. My covering letter points out:
“Pandemic policy making has been asking the impossible of scientists, economists and politicians. There are solutions and they are fundamental to the success of a free society in an era of accelerating complexity and change.
There is a structural problem rooted in the division of labour which, when combined with bad incentives, causes inevitable failures of expert advice. The problems are acute, delicate, dangerous and long-standing. They do not arise from faulty expertise or bad actors.”
I am not going to call for anyone to be sacked.
So I hope people will look at the brief I have put out, which includes concrete suggestions. I will put on the record the Harold Macmillan quote with which the brief leads:
“We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts”,
however brilliant they may be.
I do not know the facts about meningitis, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I particularly welcomed the debate between scientists on this Sunday’s Ridge programme. We have seen that the science actually involves a great deal of uncertainty and debate, as brilliant people, well versed in their lifetime’s work, try to make their way through uncertain knowledge, to predict the future. We must all proceed with great care if we are to be concerned for our constituents’ wellbeing.
In a sense, what I am saying to the Government today is that we need to fix two parts of this process. We need to change the structure within which expert advice is provided. I have provided a brief to the Minister. I have tweeted it out and would happily give it to the Minister. We also need to deal with the problem that has been the subject of so much news this week. We need to deal with the issue of this House voting on restrictions of the people’s liberty before it is taken away. That is surely the fundamental point about democracy. I can say, hand on heart, that all Members of this House appreciate that, in an emergency, it is necessary for Ministers to use the powers they have to protect life, liberty and property and I do not condemn anyone, but we are now into a different phase of the disease. It really is time to reach an agreement—I am happy to say that we have just had a constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House—and to reach a constructive way forward. I know it is inconvenient for Ministers to come to the House before they take away people’s liberties, but I say to Ministers: it is supposed to be. It is what keeps us a free people.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), especially as, unusually, I agreed with much of what he said. If I have the time, I want to talk about three issues: the return of universities, support for closed-down industries and communication for areas in lockdown. But I have to start with the urgent question of the 10 pm hard closure for pubs and restaurants. There does not appear to be logic behind the measure or a convincing rationale for it, and predictably it led to a chaotic situation in Manchester at the weekend as people were turfed out of venues where they were being managed and were socially distanced on to crowded streets and into crowded takeaways and shops. It comes at a time when hospitality venues are already struggling. The landlord at my local in Withington told me that his pubs have largely been full in recent weeks, but he is losing money because of the capacity restrictions. The 10 pm closure makes it hard for restaurants to include two sittings. Those industries were struggling before the 10 pm closure. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth): we need a review of the measure because it does not appear to meet our needs.
On universities, I could just say that I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said. I will be brief—unfortunately, I have been unlucky in the draw on tomorrow’s statement—but I just want to talk about testing. Three weeks ago in this Chamber, I asked for a national plan for the return of universities, including guidance on how to protect communities around universities and comprehensive testing. That has not happened and we have hundreds of students self-isolating in halls in Manchester. It is going to be only the start of a very difficult time for students, university authorities and local communities such as mine around universities. I echo the call for a proper testing regime for universities, because it will not be practical or acceptable to keep students cooped up in halls over Christmas.
The main issue I want to talk about is the Chancellor’s package and the support, or lack of it, for some of the industries that are completely shut down—industries that I worked in before I came to this House, including the nightlife industry, and the music and festivals industries. I am not against tough restrictions to suppress the virus, but they have to come with support, and some of those industries are getting little or no support. The nightclub industry employs 6,000 people in the north-west—I used to be one of them. Many are self-employed, and many have fallen through the cracks in the self-employed scheme. I will not dwell on the fact that there is still no hope for those excluded people in the Chancellor’s measures. It is a desperately disappointing omission.
This is about support for businesses as well as individuals —the businesses that keep our cities thriving and vibrant. They have been built up over years and, without covid, will be viable—world leading, in many cases. We are world leading in the event industry and the live music industry. At the moment, nightclubs are sitting empty with no support for rent and rates or the other overheads. Live concert companies cannot promote concerts. They provide work not just for the technicians, roadies and musicians, but for the promoters, office staff, accountants and graphic designers—all the people who work for these companies, which are not making any money at the moment. They are viable, thriving, world-leading businesses without covid, and they will get through it. We need some help for some of those industries because they may not make it through this period. I point the House to the £1.4 billion underspend in cash grants that the Government have just clawed back from local authorities. Those industries should be at the front of the queue for that money.
Finally, on local lockdowns, restrictions and communication, according to the media this week, we are about to see the introduction of a new system of tiers, which would allow people to easily understand what the local restrictions are, and what tier they are in. That sounds like quite a good idea. It could well make it a lot easier for people to understand the restrictions they are under, but surely there needs to be some support. If someone is in a tier, which means that business is closed and that people are unable to work, surely that needs to come with extra support for those businesses, or increased access to testing, or enhanced local contact tracing. There needs to be some support for those businesses and people who are subject to the restrictions.
Let me say in my final few seconds that test and trace is clearly not working. In Greater Manchester, we have a very low quality of information from the national system. Local control of that test and trace system would work for us much better than the national system.
It is a great pleasure to follow both the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).
In my interventions on the Secretary of State earlier, I made the synopsis of the argument that I want to make about why Parliament should be involved, but I have some very specific examples. My own view is that it would have been wiser if the Government had stuck to guidance as opposed to putting every single one of the rules into law, partly because we could then have acted faster and there would not have been the same issues about putting things into the criminal law, but, secondly, because we could have kept the language much more straightforward and simple. Some of the complexity that is inevitable when we legislate is part of the reason why citizens find quite a lot of this difficult to follow. The Government have made that decision and we are putting things into the law, but that does mean that, when we are legislating, it is important that this House scrutinises the Government. I alluded to the two reasons for that in my interventions. One is about evidence—about what works and what scenarios we are facing—and the second one is about the detail of the law.
Let me give an example on the first one from last week. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) set out his views about the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. I do not share those views, but in a press conference last Monday they talked about the doubling time of this virus. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said he thought that the epidemic was doubling roughly every seven days. He said that it could be a little bit longer, or perhaps a little bit shorter, but let us say roughly every seven days. That was the underpinning of what my right hon. Friend called “the graph of doom”, which set the tone for last week. When the Prime Minister came to this House on Tuesday—the day after the evidence was presented at the press conference at which there were no questions permitted—he said that, the day before, the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer had said that the doubling rate was somewhere between seven and 20 days. That is really quite a dramatic difference.
The difference between 10,000 cases by the middle of October or 50,000. I do not know which of those two scenarios is correct, but the point is that they are not the same. The reason why Ministers should have to come to the House is so that we can interrogate them on the evidence, understand the problem facing us and understand the efficacy of the solutions.
The second reason is on the regulations. The regulations, which came into force at midnight last night and which were only published, or made, at five o’clock yesterday, contain some very serious powers that were not in the statements made to Parliament last week. For the avoidance of doubt, I broadly support those measures because they are about making sure that people self-isolate when they either test positive or when they are a contact. There are duties that are put on employers that create criminal offences both for the company and for individual managers in that company. I do not know how many businesses in this country are aware of the fact that these duties have now just landed on them—I would hazard very few. There are also measures that give the power of using “reasonable force” to enforce self-isolation not just to police officers and police and community support officers, but to any individual appointed by the Secretary of State and also to employees of local authorities, supposedly these covid marshals. That raises issues about who can use reasonable force, what training they have to use it in a safe manner and also if they are, by definition, using reasonable force on someone who is very likely to have coronavirus, how they exercise the reasonable force in a way that is safe for them. Do they have proper training? Those are all questions that no one in this House has been able to ask a Minister, because the regulations came into force last night. They have to be debated within 28 days, but that could be a month away and it could happen after they have been amended several times, as we have seen with other regulations. I do not think that is the right way to make the criminal law and introduce important sanctions in a democracy.
The changes were announced last week. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, I do not buy the idea that there was no time between last week and this week when they could have been debated. When the Government want to, they can change the business of the House rapidly. They can also arrange for the House to sit rapidly. I urge Ministers to take those steps to make sure that these laws are better scrutinised.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).
I will make a few brief observations from the point of view of a Welsh MP for a constituency on the border of Wales and England. Last Friday, we took our younger daughter to start at university for the first time, having taken our elder daughter back to her university two weeks earlier to start her second year. Therefore, the debate about covid restrictions for students is a major reality for us as a family. As with so much else in this debate, it revolves around finding a balance between keeping people safe and letting life and the economy function with some degree of normality.
I believe that the Government have got the balance right with the measures announced last week by the Prime Minister. As an MP on the Welsh borders, I am very pleased that he prepared them in consultation with the Welsh Government and the other devolved Administrations. The differences between the measures taken by the UK and Welsh Governments to combat covid-19 are relatively narrow at present. That is a welcome situation for my constituents, for whom a disparity of measures creates many practical complications.
The Welsh Government’s approach to combating coronavirus means that the Labour Opposition in this House have a practical record, albeit in a devolved context, that deserves as much scrutiny as that of the UK Government. Such scrutiny shows that there is no monopoly among political parties on getting every measure right, whether it be on local lockdowns, testing or the delayed adoption in Wales of face coverings in shops and on public transport.